Chasing pack plot challenge to favoured pair

Marseille's newly-acquired football players Dimitri Payet (L) and Benjamin Mendy pose with their jerseys

“To be a champ, you have to believe in yourself when no-one else will,” said American boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who would doubtless have approved that it is an approach which 18 of the 20 clubs in France’s Ligue 1 will be forced to take this season.

While the French Championship has often been one of the hardest to predict in Europe, it has recently drawn comparisons with La Liga in Spain, which has been dominated for many years by the powerhouses of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

In France, it is the heavyweight duo of Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco that now appear likely to battle it out for the league title, so wide is the apparent gap – in terms of financial clout, quality of squad and ability to sign top players – between them and the rest.

Consequently, with just a few hours to go before the kick-off to the 2013/14 campaign, big-name teams who have historically been viewed as contenders have been forced into the unfamiliar role of outsiders. Despite this state of affairs, they have not given up the ghost just yet.

The challengers
“PSG and Monaco have some serious firepower,” said Marseille coach Elie Baup, who guided his charges to an unexpected second-place finish last term. “They’re equipped with some highly talented players, but you know, Marseille haven’t been standing still either. Our strengths lie in how we play as a team rather than as individuals. We owe it to ourselves to fight for a spot in the top three.”

Aside from their established stars such as Mathieu Valbuena, Andre Ayew, Steve Mandanda and Nicolas Nkoulou, L’OM will rely on new signings like international winger Dimitri Payet, defensive midfielder Giannelli Imbula (Ligue 2 Player of the Year last season), and promising U-19 cap Benjamin Mendy, who were all picked up during a judicious pre-season recruitment drive.

Long accustomed to fulfilling the role of odds-on title favourite, Lyonnow form part of the chasing pack. With resources similar to that enjoyed by Marseille, Les Gones, French champions for seven successive years between 2002 and 2008, are nevertheless hopeful of forcing themselves into the title race.

“We would love to have the same resources as our rivals,” admitted Remi Garde, who is going into his third campaign at the helm of the Rhone-Alpes outfit.“But we’ll just try to compete with this so-called duopoly on the pitch, relying on a sporting policy founded on youth development and a high-quality squad with ambitious young players.”

Our strengths lie in how we play as a team rather than as individuals. We owe it to ourselves to fight for a spot in the top three.

The spine of Lyon’s team certainly fits this description, from goalkeeper Anthony Lopes to forward Alexandre Lacazette, not to mention defender Samuel Umtiti, defensive midfielder Maxime Gonalons and playmaker Clement Grenier, all of whom graduated from the club’s youth academy.

Neighbours and rivals Saint-Etienne,meanwhile, will also expect to compete strongly, following a successful season in which they finished fifth in the table and lifted the French League Cup, *Les Verts’ *first trophy for 32 years.

Other potential dark horses are Nice, who claimed a remarkable fourth-place finish in 2012/13, thanks largely to experienced coach Claude Puel and clinical striker Dario Cvitanich, and Lille who, deprived of Europe this season, will be able to fully concentrate on domestic affairs.

Finally,Rennes, disappointingly 13th last time around, will be confident of improving on that record, especially now that Philippe Montanier, who steered modest Real Sociedad into the UEFA Champions League Play-off round in June, has taken the reins at the Breton club.

Players to watchAs the capture of Uruguayan front man Edinson Cavani and Colombian goal machine Radamel Falcao by PSG and Monaco respectively is unlikely to have escaped the attention of fans around the world, has instead turned the spotlight on the players who may inspire their clubs to gatecrash the predicted party.

In Marseille, much is expected of the two players with the most assists in the league last season, the aforementioned Dimitri PayetandStade Velodrome favouriteMathieu Valbuena. Following productive spells with Nantes, Saint-Etienne and Lille, the Reunion native is now as comfortable setting up team-mates as he is putting the ball in the net - abilities that have already earned him a handful of caps for France.

Lyon’s Clement Grenier made his international debut in June, and looks on course to collect considerably more, with the attacking midfielder having not put a foot wrong since the tail end of the last campaign. He has continued to impress in recent weeks too, firing home an exceptional volley in a friendly with Real Madrid and scoring the winner in the second leg of their Champions League qualifying match against Grasshoppers.

We’ll just try to compete with this so-called duopoly on the pitch, relying on a sporting policy founded on youth development and a high-quality squad.

Saint-Etienne may have lost top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Borussia Dortmund, but they can content themselves with having snapped up two rising stars who have been knocking on the door of the French national team, left-sided midfielder Franck Tabanou and creative fulcrum Benjamin Corgnet, signed from Toulouse and Lorient respectively.

In Nice, the pressure will be on Argentinian attacker Dario Cvitanich to repeat his feats of last term, during which he scored no fewer than 19 goals, while at Lille, it is looking likely that Florian Thauvin, who was instrumental in France’s recent FIFA U-20 World Cup triumph in Turkey, will finally make his debut after previously starring on loan for Bastia.

The arrival of Thauvin, whose talent, speed and technique have drawn comparisons with Eden Hazard, could well inspire former Champions League winner Salomon Kalou onto greater things, after the Ivorian failed to impress last season following his transfer from Chelsea.

Another former U-20 star on the move is Portuguese striker Nelson Oliveira. Awarded the adidas Silver Ball for his four goals at Colombia 2011, the Benfica loanee, who spent the 2012/13 season with Deportivo La Coruna in Spain and was part of Portugal’s UEFA EURO 2012 squad, will this year bolster the attack of Rennes.

In addition to Thauvin, other members of France’s victorious U-20 team whose progress fans will be monitoring include PSG left-back Lucas Digne, Rennes right-back Dimitri Foulquier, Lyon defender Samuel Umtiti, Saint-Etienne centre-back Kurt Zouma and Valenciennes wingerJean Christophe Bahebeck, who has been sent out on loan from PSG.

Ligue 1 will therefore be awash with talented young players who would like nothing more than to prove the old adage that improvement comes through rubbing shoulders with the very best. With stars aplenty in Paris and Monaco, they will hope to go one step further and perhaps knock the big names off their pedestals altogether.

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