The 2013-14 Ligue 1 season starts in less than 24 hours, with the opening match between Paris Saint-Germain and Montpelier HSC kicking off Friday.
This summer was an exciting one for Ligue 1, thanks to a flurry of transfer activity. To date, only the English Premier League has spent more money on player transfers than Ligue 1. As a whole, the league spent more than €322 million on transfers this summer. The two top spending clubs, AS Monaco and PSG each spent more than €100 million on transfers this summer making them numbers one and three respectively on the spending charts. The influx of talent to those two team may not bode well for the rest of the league as some teams without super-rich owners will have to find other ways to keep up.
A common theme in Ligue 1 is a dearth of decent attacking talent. Teams like PSG and Monaco have some of the best attackers in the game, but the rest of the league is finding it hard to get strikers of any sort of quality. PSG lead the league in goalscoring last season with 69, but that total would have been good enough for only fifth in the English Premier League and Serie A and third in La Liga and the Bundesliga. In short, France is lagging behind the other countries in goal-scoring and it doesn't seem like that's a problem that is getting fixed for most teams.
Last season the bottom of the table was crowded. Coming in to the last day of the season, there were four teams within range of the final relegation spot. This season figures to be more of the same as some of the newly promoted sides and some of the divisions weaker teams all struggle against the threat of the drop. Promoted sides FC Nantes -- who just signed American Alejandro Bedoya -- and EA Guingamp will find their time in Ligue 1 difficult, especially in the early going. Probably the favorite to go down though is a team that is AC Ajaccio. Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa kept l'Ours afloat last season, but without some added goalscoring punch Ajaccio are almost certain to go down.
Other teams that finished at or near the bottom of the league last season like SC Bastia, Evian Thonon Gaillard, Stade de Reims and Sochaux could find themselves in the relegation mix as well. Reims in particular were horrible on the attack last season. The club failed to find the back of the net in 17 matches and even though they had one of the league's best defenses you're not going to win many points when you don't score goals. Reims have brought in Macabi Tel-Aviv striker Eliran Atar who managed three straight seasons with 20 or more goals for the Israeli club. There’s no guarantee the 26 year-old will be able to replicate those performances in the more difficult French league, but he’s certainly better than nothing.
Another club that could find itself in some serious trouble is Toulouse FC. Earlier this summer the president of the club, Olivier Sadran, came out and said that the club was in dire financial straits and faced a slow and disastrous death if some players were not off-loaded. As a result the team has sold winger Franck Tabanou to Saint-Etienne and their best asset, defensive midfielder Etienne Capoue, could be on his way to Tottenham Hotspur. Le Téfécé have some promising young players, such as defender Serge Aurier and striker Wissam Ben Yeder, but they will need to be immense for Toulouse to avoid being in the battle for relegation at the end of the season.
Above those teams are a few sides that are pretty comfortably mid-table. Montpelier HSC, the 2011-12 Ligue 1 Champions, saw their best player leave for the second consecutive season (first Olivier Giroud in 2012 and now Younes Belhanda), but the club probably has enough other talent to see them through. Montpelier will need to find a way to replace Belhanda's goals, likely a combination of young star Remy Cabella and former Rennes striker Victor Montano will be counted on for that, but they are strong enough in other spots to not have much to worry about.
Another club that could find themselves mid-table is Saint-Etienne. It seems odd that Les Verts, who barely missed out on Champions League football would fall so far back, but the loss of striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is going to be tough to overcome. Tabanou was bought from Toulouse to play on the left wing where he will provide some excellent service, but the question remains as to who he'll be aiming his crosses at. Oddly, the strongest link to a striker that Saint-Etienne have had all summer is to former West Ham forward Carlton Cole, who is currently a free agent. Cole would certainly be an interesting signing, but in terms of quality he's nowhere near Aubameyang.
Perhaps the most interesting competition will be for the Europa League spots. Rennes, Lille, Bordeaux, and Nice will all be competing for a place in Europe next season. Of that group, Nice and Lille might be the best equipped to make a run.
Nice surprised everyone last season by finishing fourth, but they won't sneak up on anyone this season. They started the season slow, but over the final two-thirds of the season they were one of the best teams in the league. If they can somehow maintain that form over the course of a whole season they may find themselves competing for a Champions League place with the big boys. The key to Nice's season will be striker Dario Cvitanich, the league's second leading scorer. If he can replicate his form from last year then Nice will do well. Lille, meanwhile, are just an exciting team to watch play. They've lost some of their best players this offseason, but they still have plenty of talent to compete in the league. Marvin Martin, the former Sochaux playmaker, will need to drastically improve on his play from last season as a lot of the creative onus will fall on him this season.
One fun thing about Ligue 1 is that there is, quite often, a surprise title winner. The league has been won by six different teams in the last six season, which is pretty much the exact opposite of England and Spain. One constant though is the performance of the league's "big three" of PSG, Marseille, and Lyon. Lyon won seven straight Ligue 1 titles from 2002 to 2008, but find themselves increasingly marginalized by their big spending rivals. Les Gones may find it especially difficult this season following the sale of Lisandro Lopez and the potential departure of Batefimbi Gomis. The departure of almost all of their experienced strikers will put a lot more onus on young players like Clement Grenier, Alexandre Lacazette, and Yassine Benzia. Lyon's academy continues to churn out great young players, but at some point a lack of experience may come back to hurt them.
Monaco have been the big talking point this season due to their spending. Many expect them to compete for the title on the back of the attacking prowess of Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez, but they have a couple of issues. First, their goalkeeping situation is pretty bad. First choice keeper Danijel Subasic hasn't looked incredibly shaky in the pre-season and it's doubtful that manager Claudio Ranieri has much faith in him. If Monaco are going to spend more money this summer, then upgrading the keeper position should be their top priority. Their second weakness is depth. The first XI for Monaco is excellent, but beyond that, particularly in defense, the team is incredibly thin. If Falcao, James, or one of their central defenders suffers an injury, then Monaco will find the going incredibly tough.Those two issues will most likely prevent Monaco from really mounting a serious challenge to PSG's reign as champions of Ligue 1.
Marseille finished twelve points behind PSG last year and that was with one of the league's worst attacks. This season, with the additions of Saber Khilifa from Evian and Dimitri Payet from Lille, l'OM's attack is almost certain to be better. Marseille lack the sort of top-end talent that Monaco and PSG have, but they have excellent squad depth. If Marseille need an upgrade it's in central midfield. They signed Gianelli Imbula this offseason, but he's never played in Ligue 1 before. Oddly enough, l'OM might actually miss Joey Barton. They won't miss the baggage that the English midfielder brought, but his technical skill were certainly be hard to replace. Marseille need just a bit more to overcome PSG, but their squad as a whole should make them definite locks for the Champions League places.
In the end, the league is, once again, Paris Saint-Germain's to lose. Les Parisiens led the league in goals scored last year and look like they'll be even more potent with the addition of Edinson Cavani. Last season, PSG had problems with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ezequiel Lavezzi often dropping into the same deep positions and clogging the attack. Cavani will solve that problem almost instantly. He and Ibrahimovic will cause Ligue 1 defenses tons of difficulties. If there are any questions for PSG they are about Javier Pastore. The Argentine hasn't quite lived up to expectations at PSG and his role in the team is in question under new manager Laurent Blanc. There are plenty of other options for that position, but PSG supporters would love to see Pastore come good.
In sum, there's going to be lots of fun battles all over the table in Ligue 1. This season is set-up to be one of the most exciting in recent years and I encourage all of you to check out a few matches this season.