France's finest ready for lift-off

Having spent 18 years in the wilderness, Marseille finally clawed their way back to the summit of the French game last season as club legend Didier Deschamps returned to lead them from the sidelines. Captain the last time OM captured the Ligue 1 title, the erstwhile midfielder will now be looking to secure a second consecutive crown but knows his team are in for a stiff challenge, as 2008/09 champions Bordeaux discovered last term when they failed to clinch even a European place. A number of sides will be bent on usurping Marseille’s crown, with Lyon chief among them as they target their first trophy in three years.

With time ticking down until the start of the 2010/11 Ligue 1 season, runs the rule over the teams determined to have their say in the title race and, no doubt, help French football enthusiasts forget their national team’s woes at South Africa 2010.

The defending champions
Marseille have done well to keep the spine of the side that led them to glory last year but they are still on the lookout for a striker to serve alongside Mamadou Niang. The Senegalese marksman finished top scorer in Ligue 1 last time out, yet he could do with a prolific partner as the club set out to defend their crown and advance beyond the group stage of the UEFA Champions League.

Favourites to taste success again this term, the reigning champions have so far brought in just one new face in the shape of promising Spanish defender Cesar Azpilicueta. That stability could serve them well as Deschamps’s charges already know their roles, and will kick off their defence having already added to their silverware collection by defeating Paris Saint-Germain in the traditional season curtain-raiser, Le Trophée des Champions.

Title contenders
Runners-up in 2009/10, Lyon pushed Marseille all the way and seem well-placed to pose similar problems this year. Featuring more or less the same squad, France’s most prosperous club look comfortably the biggest threat to the title-holders and coach Claude Puel will once again base his side’s challenge on Argentinian striker Lisandro Lopez – voted Ligue 1’s Player of the Year last season – and Les Bleus goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

As for Bordeaux, they experienced a turbulent summer with coach Laurent Blanc leaving to take the France job and local and national icon Jean Tigana stepping into his shoes. The former France midfielder takes possession of a stable squad, but it was one that proved inconsistent last season and has been slightly weakened by the departure of Marouane Chamakh. Despite those concerns, Tigana has already outlined his ambitions. “If you look at my career as a player and a coach, I love winning and I’ve always won things,” he announced upon arrival. “If the club officials chose me, it’s because they know that.”

The outsiders
Few expect PSG to reacquaint themselves with championship success this season, but supporters of the capital club nonetheless have plenty to look forward to, with the proven talents of midfielder Mathieu Bodmer and forward Nene having been added to a squad already boasting the skills of Guillaume Hoarau and Mevlut Erding, plus the experience of Gregory Coupet and Claude Makelele.

In Monaco’s case, their golden period may have been consigned to memory, yet the principality side are often presented as dark horses on the eve of a fresh campaign. That is the situation again this year, with Korea Republic’s Park Chu-Young and Uruguay’s Diego Perez eager to build on their performances at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. Similarly, Auxerre, Lille and Montpellier will all be intent on confirming the promise they displayed last season, while the latter club’s exploits in 2009/10 will doubtless serve as inspiration to promoted trio Caen, Brest and Arles-Avignon.

Star signings
With less than a month to go before the transfer window slams shut, only Lyon have made serious waves on the Ligue 1 recruitment front, snapping up French international striker Jimmy Briand from Rennes to make up for Sidney Govou’s departure to Panathinaikos. Keeping a slightly lower profile, PSG have turned to Brazilian predator Nene, who plundered 14 goals for Monaco last season, and Mathieu Bodmer, who hopes to be free of the injury problems that dogged his three years with Lyon.

Elsewhere, Nancy’s attack will be bolstered by the arrival of Lorient’s Tahitian forward Marama Vahirua, while Montpellier hope Chile’s Marco Estrada, signed from Universidad de Chile, can replace Argentinian playmaker Alberto Costa, now at Valencia. Montpellier have likewise lost Colombian goalscorer Victor Hugo Montano to Rennes, where Stuttgart’s Cameroonian international Georges Mandjeck and much-travelled Sochaux midfielder Stephane Dalmat have also put down their suitcases. Lastly, United States defender Carlos Bocanegra has left Brittany for Saint-Etienne.

Players to watch
Supporters will again be expecting much from the players who shone brightest last season: namely Lyon duo Lloris and Lisandro, Marseille’s Niang and Lucho Gonzalez, Yoann Gourcuff of Bordeaux and PSG striker Erding. In addition to those key performers, many will be hoping to witness a further blossoming in the talents of Auxerre’s Polish marksman Ireneusz Jelen, Lille’s Belgian livewire Eden Hazard and Lorient forward Kevin Gameiro.

The return of Sochaux’s American striker Charlie Davies following his serious car accident last year will also arouse plenty of interest, as will the first top-flight steps of promising forwards Olivier Giroud of Montpellier and Nolan Roux of Brest, after both excelled in Ligue 2 last season.

Have your say
Will Marseille retain their title? If not, which of their rivals will go on to take their place? And which club will emerge as this season’s surprise package?