Posted: Monday August 1, 2011 10:21AM ; Updated: Monday August 1, 2011 10:21AM
Ben Lyttleton
Ben Lyttleton>INSIDE SOCCER

Ten storylines to follow entering the French Ligue 1 season

Story Highlights

Under new Qatari ownership, PSG has bought big names in the summer

Lyon playmaker Youann Gourcuff is under pressure to live up to his €22M price tag

Lille was weakned by Gervinho's departure but still has Eden Hazard

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Eden Hazard
Lille's brilliant youngster Eden Hazard (left) should be the dominant player in Ligue 1 this season.
Jean Yves-Bonvalet/Landov

Top 10 storylines on the eve of the new French Ligue 1 season:

1. Is Paris Saint-Germain the new Manchester City?

There is an irony to Qatari Sports Investments buying a 70 percent stake in PSG this summer: after years of underachievement and instability, this PSG, under coach Antoine Kombouare, was finally on a level footing, last season finishing fourth and reaching the French Cup final. Now they have brought in Leonardo as sports director and signed top talents in Kevin Gameiro, Blaise Matuidi and Jeremy Menez, as well as Momo Sissoko, Milan Bisevac and Salvatore Sirigu. Champions League qualification is the minimum target, and, depending on the identity of its marquee signing -- Javier Pastore is top of its list -- a title challenge a serious possibility. The new president of the board, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, has insisted that Kombouare's job is safe, but others are not so sure: the examples of Mark Hughes at Manchester City (replaced by Roberto Mancini) and Jesualdo Ferreira at Malaga (replaced by Manuel Pellegrini) suggest that Kombouare, a former PSG teammate of Leonardo's, might not last the season if results do not go as expected.

2. Is this Remi Garde's Arsenal interview?

Remi Garde was reportedly in the running to become Arsene Wenger's new assistant coach at Arsenal this summer, but instead he took the only job he hasn't already done at Lyon -- after turning down the post a few years ago.

Garde is a former player, assistant coach, youth academy director, and now he is first-team coach, as the dominant team of the 2000s usher in a new "youth-oriented" era. President Jean-Michel Aulas is still counting the cost of hiring predecessor Claude Puel (literally, as a €5/$7.2M compensation claim is going through the courts) and Lyon is the only top-10 team to have spent nothing this summer. With young players like defender Thimothee Kolodziejczak, 19, and strikers Yannis Tafer and Alexandre Lacazette, both 20, this is Garde's chance to prove his talent -- and possibly pave the way to a return to Arsenal in the future.

3. How good is Eden Hazard?

The player that France Football put as No. 1 in its list of men who will determine the Ligue 1 title race this season (with Leonardo two and Didier Deschamps at three), this is the first time Hazard will be playing Champions League soccer -- and therefore the first chance for the wider public to see the 2009 and 2010 L1 Young Player of the Year, and last season's Player of the Year, in action. Hazard is sensational, a winger Zinedine Zidane has said he wants at Real Madrid, and a match-winner for whom PSG reportedly considered tabling a €35 million ($50.4M) bid. Lille has done exceptionally well to hold onto the Belgian, still only 20, for the coming season, but has played the market cleverly: if he performs to anything like his potential in the Champions League, PSG's valuation will look like a bargain. This guy is a superstar waiting to happen.

4. Who will be this season's Marvin Martin?

"Marvelous" Marvin Martin was the breakout star of last season, his 17 assists the best in Europe's top five leagues as he inspired little Sochaux to fifth place in Ligue 1. His season ended on a high: replacing Yoann Gourcuff in the France side and scoring two goals and setting up one more in a cameo substitute's performance during a 4-0 win over Ukraine. This season, big things are expected from Marseille winger Jordan Ayew and M'biaye Niang, Caen's 16-year-old striker who caused a sensation with three L1 goals in seven appearances. Keep an eye out also for Martin's teammate Modibo Maiga: he scored 15 goals last season and, with strike-partner Brown Ideye sold to Dynamo Kiev, could make a big impact this season.

5. This could be a breakout season for ... Ligue 1.

The arrival of QSI at Paris Saint-Germain has brought the money and Leonardo the glamour back to Ligue 1, and coming on the back of Al-Jazeera's €500M+ ($720.7M) bid for L1 TV rights from 2012-2018, signs are that the French game is heading for an exciting new era. It's not quite the late-1980s, when the likes of Marseille and PSG were able to tempt the world's best players to France, but things are definitely looking up -- especially if the Champions Trophy, in which Cup holders Marseille beat champions Lille 5-4 in a thriller last week, is anything to go by.

6. Is this Yoann Gourcuff's last chance?

Lyon's success this season could depend on the form of midfield playmaker Gourcuff, who cost the club €22M ($31.7M) 12 months ago but was a huge flop, and has now become a symbol of Lyon's recent financial profligacy. He was not happy with the pragmatic style demanded by previous coach Claude Puel, and new boss Remi Garde may change Lyon's 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 with Gourcuff at the tip of a midfield diamond to bring out his best. It won't happen for a while: Gourcuff will miss the first eight weeks of the campaign after an ankle operation. Last season's dip led to questions about his mental toughness: he was great at Bordeaux when it was winning the title, but can he only be a match-winner in a winning side? As former France international Willy Sagnol told RMC: "Gourcuff's a good player, but I ask myself if he got it wrong going to Lyon. I just don't think it suits him."

7. Can Didier Deschamps keep everyone happy?

It's a surprise, and a relief, to see Deschamps still in charge at Marseille, and credit to owner Maragrita Louis-Dreyfus, who realized his relationship with president Jean-Claude Dassier was strained, so promoted Vincent Labrune to the post. That has placated Deschamps, and he has had much more say over recruitment this summer than last year -- but whether he can keep his bulging squad content is another matter. Stephane M'Bia has already told L'Equipe that he "takes no pleasure" in having been converted from a midfielder into a center back (he added his target was to score 15 goals this season, worryingly enough) while last year, Andre-Pierre Gignac was so keen to cut inside from the left wing in his quest for goals that he said he'd rather start matches on the bench than at center forward. So he was benched. Deschamps needs to lose Lucho Gonzalez, Charles Kabore and Vitorino Hilton, and then OM's squad will be more manageable.

8. Carlos Bocanegra has a fight on his hands at Saint-Etienne.

Last season Saint-Etienne was in sixth place in mid-April, before a late-season slump left it in 10th. Any optimism for this season, though, dissipated when financial imperatives left it no option but to sell its best players: Blaise Matuidi (to PSG for €10M/$14.4M), Dmitri Payet (Lille, €9M/$12.9M), and Emmanuel Riviere (Toulouse, €6M/$8.4M). Those last two were responsible for 65 percent of Saint-Etienne's goals or assists last season, so it's little wonder coach Christophe Galtier just wants "to do better than last season." Big things are expected from new signings Stephane Ruffier, an excellent goalkeeper, as well as uncompromising center back Paulao and center forward Florent Sinama-Pongolle. But a top-half finish would be a great return for Boca and Co.

9. The old boys are coming back.

At 31, Sidney Govou is not even that old but he's been around a while: after a tricky year at Panathinaikos the former Lyon winger has signed for new boys Evian, alongside 36-year-old playmaker Jerome Leroy. Two other former France internationals, Ludovic Giuly, 35, David Trezeguet, 33, are looking for Ligue 1 clubs but might need a reality check: Giuly is looking for huge-wages and Trezeguet, despite playing for relegated La Liga side Hercules last year, thinks he can still do the job for a title-challenging team.

10. Can Dijon cut the mustard?

There are some familiar names at Dijon, given that Lesley Malouda and Freddy Drogba, the brothers of Chelsea pair Florent and Didier, are in the squad, but neither is set for regular roles in the new boys' battle to stay up.

Dijon will still be worth watching though: coached by former Lyon and Saint-Etienne defender Patrice Carteron, they lost Ligue 2's Player of the Year Sebastian Ribas (to Genoa) and brought in Gregory Thil, who scored four goals for Boulogne last season, as replacement. Keep an eye on young midfielder Younousse Sankhare, a star of the future.

Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.

 
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