2011/12 Ligue 1 Preview

The best stories in France go all the way to the top, and this one is no different. Paris St Germain, newly under the ownership of Qatari Sports Investments, this summer appointed Leonardo as sports director and in one month spent €83m on eight players, including €42m on Javier Pastore, the Argentinian playmaker coveted by Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Seeing off the likes of Valencia for the striker Kevin Gameiro (€11m), Liverpool for Blaise Matuidi (€10m) and Marseille for Jeremy Menez (€8m) is one thing, but the Pastore deal is a marquee signing and shatters the previous French transfer record of €22.5m, spent by Lyon on Yoann Gourcuff. Le Parisien suggests Dimitar Berbatov is open to the idea of joining PSG, while Santos's Ganso is still on the radar, which raises the question of how all three may gel in the same dressing room, let alone the team. France Football called the spending spree the July revolution. Le Parisien claimed "PSG has truly entered a new dimension" while L'Equipe's asked of Pastore: "Is he worth €42m?"

Just as fascinating as the implications on the pitch are the machinations off it, particularly the role of the France president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in helping the QSI deal happen. Liberation described Sarkozy, a PSG fan, as "the Qatari team's 12th man" and alleged that he had to be talked out of firing the sports minister, Chantal Jouanno, for saying she wished PSG's new owners had been French.

So Foot investigated the increasing business relationships between France and Qatar, and reported that 10 days after Sarkozy hosted a lunch between the QSI head, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, and Michel Platini last November, the Uefa president – an outspoken critic of billionaire owners – voted for Qatar's bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

This is the backdrop to what promises to be the most exciting Ligue 1 season for years, with PSG now credible challengers to the vibrant new champions Lille, a regrouped and hungry Marseille, and a Lyon side coming to terms with a new philosophy. PSG's signings, up to now, have been impressive: Gameiro is a proven scorer in this league (22 goals last season), while Matuidi and Ménez represent quality, if inexperienced, replacements for the departed Claude Makelele and Ludovic Giuly.

The other new faces – Milan Bisevac, Momo Sissoko and the goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu (tough on Nicolas Douchez, who drops to the bench within weeks of joining) are all on bigger salaries, worryingly, than the rest of the squad. "We want to do something long term and not buy 10 Messis straight away. That's not how you build a team," Leonardo said. Crucially, PSG have kept the centre-back Mamadou Sakho from the clutches of Arsenal. Sakho, 21, once captained the side at the age of 17 and is club captain this season.

QSI has targeted Champions League qualification for next season – as PSG finished fourth last term, that should be doable – the Ligue 1 title in 2013, and a tilt at winning the Champions League by 2015. What's unlikely is that the coach, Antoine Kombouare, who has steadied a very rocky ship in recent seasons, will be around to see all that. "Why should I worry about my job?" the coach told journalists. "If we win, I stay, and if we lose, I don't. I know how these things work."

"When the Qataris invest, they want to be obeyed," Alain Perrin, Lyon's former double-winning coach now in charge at the Qatari side Al-Khor, has warned. "But I don't see Kombouare staying very long." Perrin's predecessor at Al-Khor, Bertrand Marchand, agreed: "It's their trademark to appoint a big name. In Qatar, the coach is the star of the team." Carlo Ancelotti has already been linked to the job and Arsène Wenger remains a long-term target.

At least the fixture list has been kind to PSG: only three of their first 12 games are against sides that finished in the top half last season. That's more than can be said for Marseille, last season's runners-up, who play four of the top six in the opening six weeks. No wonder Marseille figures past and present have been queueing up for a pop at PSG. "You can't go out and buy a style of play, a culture and an identity," the former president Bernard Tapie said (and he would know). The Marseille sports director, Jose Anigo, said: "When you spend almost €100m, you have to win the title." "They should be renamed the Galactiques de Paris," according to the new president, Vincent Labrune.

For once, l'OM should be grateful that they have been able to conduct their summer business in relative serenity. Labrune's appointment has helped the coach, Didier Deschamps, win, temporarily at least, his power battle with Anigo and l'OM have bought the France captain, Alou Diarra (for a bargain €5m from Bordeaux), the talented young defender Nicolas Nkoulou and the Lorient pair of Jeremy Morel and Morgan Amalfitano. Mathieu Valbuena is likely to replace Lucho González as the No10, while Diarra playing just in front of Souleymane Diawara and Stephane Mbia will give the team a formidable physical presence.

But will Marseille be able to overhaul Lille? Last season's champions sold their spine this summer, with Adil Rami, Yohan Cabaye and Gervinho all moving on, but were quick to replace them. Marko Basa, Benoît Pedretti and Dimitri Payet have come in – at a net profit of €5.5m – while the squad has been boosted for the Champions League with the arrivals of Laurent Bonnart, Vincent Enyeama, Ronny Rodelin and Nicolas Fauvergue. Lille's recruitment is normally spot on – last season's back five cost them nothing to put together – but they were also lucky to avoid any injuries last year: only 14 players made more than five starts all season.

The key to this season rests on the winger and French player of the year Eden Hazard staying fit, and Moussa Sow proving that last season, when he was top scorer with 25 goals, was no one-off – even though it was the first time in seven seasons in France that he hit double figures. "PSG may have the money but as champions we will be the team to beat," the coach, Rudi Garcia, warned.

What of the others? It's an age of austerity at Lyon, whose president, Jean-Michel Aulas, promoted Remi Garde from youth academy director to first-team coach, and promised "to play the youth card"; in other words, spend no money. As yet, the club's failure to sell Michel Bastos to Juventus (€15m asking-price) and Aly Cissokho to Liverpool (€10m) has prevented any funds coming in. Garde needs Gourcuff to rediscover his form if they are to challenge the top three.

Hot on their heels are Sochaux, looking to improve on a surprising fifth-place finish last season, and Rennes and Toulouse, who have both spent smartly: Chris Mavinga, Benoît Costil and Jonathan Pitroipa should all do well at the former, while big things are expected of Emmanuel Rivière (€6m) at Toulouse.

Ajaccio: It took Ajaccio five years to get out of Ligue 2. To avoid a speedy return, the club has signed the Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and the strikers Frédéric Sammaritano and Ilan, briefly of West Ham.

Auxerre: The club starts a new era without Ireneusz Jelen and Benoît Pedretti, not to mention the coach, Jean Fernandez. With surprise pick Laurent Fournier as the new coach, a season of consolidation is in store.

Bordeaux: Last season was disastrous under the unpopular Jean Tigana, who has been replaced by Francis Gillot. Bordeaux sold their captain, Alou Diarra, to Marseille, and Gillot's tough task is to lead the 2009 champions back into Europe.

Brest: The coach, Alex Dupont, nicknamed Sir Alex after Ferguson, won friends after Brest started last season very well. By the end, they only just stayed up, and pre-season has been disrupted by the striker Nolan Roux's public pleas to leave.

Caen: The club hit the financial jackpot by selling the highly rated striker Youssef El-Arabi (17 league goals last season) to the Saudi side Al-Hilal for €7.5m and in M'Baye Niang, 16, they have a potential star in the making. He will play up front alongside new signing Pierre-Alain Frau.

Dijon: Their first time in Ligue 1, Dijon have Florent Malouda as a shareholder, and his younger brother Lesley, as well as Didier Drogba's brother Freddy, in the squad. New signings Cédric Varrault, Daisuke Matsui and Grégory Thil add L1 experience.

Evian: Another Ligue 1 debutant, the Danone-sponsored club wanted to play home matches in nearby Geneva, but the federation forbade it. Sidney Govou, back from Panathinaikos after 11 years at Lyon, is their big summer signing.

Lille: Worthy champions last season, Rudi Garcia's attacking side have been overshadowed by Paris St Germain and Marseille's transfer-market moves. Keeping Eden Hazard is a masterstroke, but Lille's final position could depend on their Champions League campaign.

Lorient: Canny Christian Gourcuff, the longest-serving coach in L1, has replaced the creative pair of Morgan Amalfitano (Marseille) and Kevin Gameiro (PSG) with Mathieu Coutadeur and Jérémie Aliadière, who is already injured. "It's going to be tough," Gourcuff says.

Lyon: A new strategy is in place for the president, Jean-Michel Aulas, which involves spending hardly any money and hoping the new coach, Rémi Garde, can finish in the top three. It could be a tough ask.

Marseille With Didier Deschamps still in charge, Marseille are joint favourites for Ligue 1, and if André-Pierre Gignac repeats his second-season tally for Toulouse (he scored 22 league goals in 2008-09), l'OM could go one better than last season's runners-up spot.

Montpellier Already established in L1 despite only arriving two years ago, stability is their great strength. Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa turned down an offer from Lille, while Emir Spahic (now at Sevilla) is the only departure. 

Nancy: After five years as Auxerre coach, the last season of which was in the Champions League, Jean Fernandez has replaced Pablo Correa on the bench. But after nine years of Correa in charge, it could be a tough adjustment to Fernandez's softer approach.

Nice: Neighbouring Monaco's relegation could bring more fans to Nice, who finished one point above the drop zone last year. The coach, Eric Roy, an ex-Nice player, has a good relationship with the ambitious new president, Jean-Pierre Rivère, and the club is now looking up.

PSG: The big story of the summer, in Europe as well as France. Eight new players, Leonardo as sports director, and oil-rich owners: what could possibly go wrong? A poor start could spell the end for coach Kombouare

Rennes: Stability is the watchword at Rennes and keeping Yann M'Vila for another season was a coup. Look out for the latest academy talent, Yacine Brahimi, while new signing Jonathan Pitroipa has impressed in pre-season.

St Etienne: Last season's 10th-place finish was a big improvement on recent relegation battles, but Dimitri Payet and Emmanuel Rivière, responsible for 65% of Etienne's goals last season, have been sold and Steed Malbranque and Florent Sinama-Pongolle have come in.

Sochaux: The new coach, Mecha Bazdarevic, wants to build on last season's surprise fifth-place finish, but their best chance is if they hold on to Marvin Martin, Europe's leading assist-maker last season with 17. He's a wanted man but has yet to commit for this campaign. 

Toulouse: Goals have been a problem since first Johan Elmander and then André-Pierre Gignac were sold, but TFC have tried to address that by spending €10m on Emmanuel Rivière and Umut Bulut.

Valenciennes: Another coaching change, with Daniel Sanchez replacing the Sociedad-bound Philippe Montanier, but the big boost for VA, who begin life in their new stadium this season, was the top scorer, Grégory Pujol, signing a new deal. They also want Slobodan Rajkovic (Chelsea) and Ryo Miyaichi (Arsenal) on loan.

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