Monday, August 11, 2008

Le Championnat 2008/2009 Preview

Olympique Lyonnais. Olympique Lyonnais. Also, Olympique Lyonnais. In fact, Olympique Lyonnais 4x more. The powerhouse club from southeastern France has won the last 7 Ligue 1 (AKA Ligue 1 Orange, but it will always be Le Championnat to me) titles. Will this year be more of the same? Join me after the jump for a preview.

[Ed. note: Yes, I know the league started this weekend. Bite me]

[Secondary Ed. note: If anyone makes an Olympic swimming joke, I will cut you]

So, our more astute (read: Francophone; hello? any of you out there?) readers will know that Ligue 1 already kicked off this past weekend, with all but one of the games on Saturday (guess who got the prime Sunday alone time?). But that doesn't mean that this preview still isn't timely. I mean, it's only one game, right?

After that one game, we have discovered that: (1) Claude Makelele as captain will not magically cause PSG to beat all comers (0-1 to Monaco, despite no Freddu Adu); (2) l'OM have much ground to make up if they want to challenge Lyon for the title (4-4 against Stade Rennais, with Marseille GK Steve Mandanda scoring an OG - see what happens when French people name their sons Steve instead of Jean?); and (3) Lyon are capable of bossing shitty teams all over the pitch (3-0 against Toulouse, with a brace from my boy Karim Benzema, and a yellow for the useless Toulalan).

As mentioned, Lyon are holders of the last 7 Ligue 1 titles, beginning with the 2001/2002 season. However, they still trail Saint-Etienne, l'OM, and Nantes (!) in terms of overall titles. A win this year would put them in a 3-way tie at 8 titles, trailing only Saint-Etienne, who have 10. However, no one else has even come close to 7 consecutive titles, with Saint-Etienne and Marseille both having won 4 in a row (Marseille would have had 5, but the 1992/1993 season never happened). So, everyone has been looking up at Olympique Lyonnais for quite some time now, and they are getting tired of it.

Although all 20 clubs made transfer moves this summer, only the following individuals should be seen as having a chance to make a difference:

Havre AC: (1) Cedric Faure (from Reims).

Le Mans: (1) Anthony Le Tallec (from Liverpool).

Lyon: (1) Hugo Lloris (from Nice) - forced to step into the starting spot since the departure of Coupet to Atletico Madrid; (2) Jean Makoun (from Lille) - the midfielder scored the first goal of the season; and (3) Milan Baros (returning from loan to Pompey).

Marseille: (1) Hatem ben Arfa (from Lyon) - already scored a goal in the opening 4-4 shambolic tilt with Stade Rennais

Paris Saint-Germain: (1) Sammy Traore (returning from loan to Auxerre) - how did we miss him? ; (2) Ludovic Giuly (from AS Roma); and (3) Claude Makelele (from Chelsea).

Rennes: (1) Carlos Bocanegra (from Fulhamerica).

The two teams who made the most noise during the transfer season are Olympique Lyonnais and Olympique de Marseille, and not surpisingly they are the two teams tipped to fight for the title (with Bordeaux a 3rd possibility). In addition to the arrivals mentioned above, those two teams lost the following:

Lyon: (1) Loic Remy (to Nice); (2) Hatem ben Arfa (to Marseille; aren't you paying attention?); (3) Gregory Coupet (to Atletico Madrid; keep up, there will be a quiz); (4) Sebastian Squillaci (to Sevilla); and (5) Patrick Muller (to nowhere yet).

Marseille: (1) Samir Nasri (to Arsenal); and (2) Jacques Faty (to Sochaux).

So what does all of this mean? The arrival of Makoun means that Lyon now starts a team with a backline of: (1) Boumsong (dear me!); (2) Fabio Grosso (who gets my grudging respect); and (3) Francois Clerc (oops!) / Anthony Reveillere; a midfield of: (1) Makoun; (2) Juninho; (3) Toulalan; and (4) 2 scrubs named Miralem Pjanic (they claim he is the "Ligue 1 Aaron Ramsey")and Mathieu Bodmer; and the strike-force tandem of: (1) Karim Benzema and (2) Sidney Govou. That's a lot of concentrated firepower in front of a shaky defense and some questionable goalkeeping (Lloris is young and very untested).

Laurent Blanc (who was a one-time candidate to replace Nosferatu Raymond Domenech) did well with Bordeaux last year, and they kept up the pace by beating Lyon in the Trophee des Champions (the Ligue 1 equivalent of the FA Community Shield) last week. But, shiny trophies and 2-1 wins over Caen in their opener aside, Bordeaux may struggle to make the same sort of push they did last year, as that was seen as something of an aberration (the last time Bordeaux won Ligue 1 was the 1998/1999 season).

Marseille responded well last year to their new coach, and have replaced Samir Nasri with Hatem ben Arfa to play behind Djibril Cisse (who may yet leave l'OM) and Bakari Kone. However, their defense is untested, and Mandanda has looked so shaky that even Domenech decided not to play him in Euro 2008. They will need much better results than the afore-mentioned 4-4 tie to Stade Rennais, in which: (1) Mandanda had a ball bounce off his back and roll into the net; (2) l'OM thought they had won when Eliot Grandin scored in injury time in the second half; and (3) they promptly tied when they allowed Bruno Cheyrou to score one minute later.

As for the rest of Le Championnat, look out for: (1) Saint-Etienne seeking to regain their old-school form with the play of new-school striker Bafetimbi Gomis; (2) Monaco looking to give Freddy Adu some run (although if they sell off all the players that are currently on the block, they may be fighting relegation); (3) Rennes (Stade Rennais), building off their 4-4 tie with l'OM (have I mentioned that score yet?) and letting Bocanegra and Cheyrou build from the defense through to Sylvain Wiltord and Olivier Thomert; and (4) Paris Saint-Germain, who were banned from defending their League Cup title for supporter shenanigans, playing off new imports Makelele and Giuly in order to make some noise.

The relegation battle looks to consist of the "Le" teams: (1) Le Havre; (2) Le Mans; (3) Le Grenoble (aww, crap - that one doesn't work), possibly joined by Lille and Caen.


Keith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith said...

I'm sorry. . . NY kid, will Lyon "smash" their Ligue Un competition?

Andrew said...

1/Olympique Lyonnais

thapeez said...

Does Setanta still show Ligue 1 matches regularly?

The NY Kid said...

dammit Keith!

@thapeez - Setanta does show some Ligue 1 matches, but I still don't get the damned channel, so I'm not sure how regular they are.

Mike Georger said...

how you know your league is in trouble

- the same team wins seven years in a row and is an alsoran in europe
- tallec is seen as a difference making transfer

Jihaime said...

Avid French reader here. If I may correct some things...

Team by team, moves that will make a difference :
- Auxerre : no significant move. They basically keep most of last year's team.

- Bordeaux : Some improvements for a team that hopes to stay on the podium. Arrivals of Gouffran (Caen), an explosive but somehow limited (he has pretty much his speed for him, and does headers well. Apart from that, I find him essentially useless) forward/right-winger ; and of Gourcuff (Milan AC, loan), a talented midfielder, who scored in the first game, and who nearly scored again yesterday. Didn't lost important guys (Micoud didn't play much, Jemmali was replaced by Chalmé...)

- Caen : replaced Gouffran (transfer, Bordeaux) by Savidan (transfer, from Valenciennes), a good yet quite old (30 year old) forward from Valenciennes. Interesting note : the guy only started to play professionnally at 25 or 26, and used to combine amateur play with regular jobs like garbage collector. Then, he went on the be, on consecutive seasons, the best scorer in the 3rd division, then the 2nd (Ligue 2), then one of the best in Ligue 1. True story. That's pretty much it for that team, which should hover around the 10th place.

- Grenoble : went up from Ligue 2. Hopes just to stay in Ligue 1. Brought some experienced players to do so (Batlles, Jemmali, Moreira). Have gone off to a nice start (won at Sochaux and against Rennes). Interesting fact : owned by a Japanese company, they were only assured to play in the Ligue something like 2 or 3 weeks before the beginning of the championship, thanks to major questions on their financial capacities.

- Le Havre : same thing, team also promoted this year. Lost last season Ligue 2's best scorer, Guillaume Hoarau, to Paris (Yeah. Great potentiel, the guy has it all, if only he can be more agressive. More on that later.). Same comments as with Grenoble, you bring experienced players to secure your spot : Dieuze, Noro, Norbert, and Fauré, who wants to prove that he's legit for Ligue 1, and not just a good Ligue 2 player.

- Le Mans : major question mark. Lost their (excellent) coach, Rudi Garcia, to Lille. Lost major parts of last year's team (Sessegnon to Paris, Matsui to Saint-Etienne, Yebda to Benfica Lisbon, Romaric to FC Sevilla, De Melo to Parma, Calvé to Nancy). That's tough, and despite having some nice pieces (Gervinho, who played (plays ? Is Nigeria still in ?) in the Olympics), they should have to tough time this year. Don't expect them to go much higher than the 14-15th place, at best.

- Lille : Lost their coach, Claude Puel, who solidly installed them among the best teams in the league. Also lost Jean II Makoun, one of the best players in the league, their GK, Tony Sylva (Trabzonspor, Turkey), and their right-back, Lichtsteiner (who was an absolute clown for Switzerland at the European championship). But they managed to get some nice pieces : Balmont, a good, although quite violent, defensive midfielder from Nice, Rudi Garcia, the highly-touted coach from Le Mans, and they managed to transfer Mavuba from Villareal (they had the guy on loan last year). The 7-8th range is appropriate.

- Lorient : small town team, led by maths and tactics guru (not kidding, the guy's really supersmart) Christian Gourcuff, this team hopes to quietly continue being in the 8-12th place, with its small budget. Lost no major piece, and -slightly- improved by Gameiro (Strasbourg, transfer, a young and promising forward), Amalfitano, a rotation player (midfield-right midfield), as well as Andre Ayew (forward, on loan from Marseille), son (or nephew, don't remember) of Abedi Pele, one of the best African players of all time.

- Lyon : quite some movements for the team that wants to extend its domination for the umpteenth year. GK : Lloris, a stud in the making (he's all you can want in a GK : good reflexes, he has the size, and the balls to go get the ball) replaces aging Coupet (transfer to Atletico Madrid) ; Defense : lost Squillaci (full back, transfer to Sevilla), Müller (same position, free agent), and Cleber Anderson (Sao Paulo, loan) ; enter Mensah, a very solid full back (from Rennes, transfer), an upgrade over Squillaci in my eyes, but the guy has trouble staying healthy and playing more than 30 games a season. But the Cris/Mensah pair should be a monster, even in the Champions' League. The problem lies on the wings : on the left, Grosso, the italian guy, who's good but not great, and on the right, Réveillère, who's... not even good. And they lost Clerc (who's not much better) for 6 months with a knee injury (torn something, I think it's his ACL or MCL, whatever). So they have problems. At the European level.
Midfield : it's crowded here. They already had Juninho, Toulalan (arguably one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe), and Källström, and come Pjanic (18-year old offensive midfielder from Metz, great raw talent), Makoun (from Lille, a great defensive midfielder, but who can carry the ball more than Toulalan), and Ederson (offensive midfielder, from Nice, who's very talented). Källström should be the odd man out, but they don't seem to find a taker. And Juninho will probably see less playing time.
Up front, things are simpler : they transferred Ben Arfa (Marseille), and Rémy, but got Piquionne (the guy's already hated by fans, because he played for the local rival, Saint-Etienne). That leaves them with Benzema, Govou, Fred, Baros, and Piquionne. Lot of power in the middle, not so much on the sides.
Also an important transfer, Puel replaces Perrin as head coach. That's probably an upgrade, but that might also mean an emphasis put on defense, since Puel is quite a rigorist.

- Marseille : they hope to build on last year's nice finish, and could be compared to the Phoenix Suns. These guys are going to take a lot of goals, because they probably have the best firepower in France, but are going to take a lot, too, since their defense is laughable. They recruited Erbate (Africa) and Hilton (Lens) as full backs, but these two haven't been as good as advertised. Taiwo and Bonnart are not much more than liabilities defensively on the sides. The major upgrades are offensive : Ben Arfa, the extremely talented but mentally challenged offensive midfielder/winger from Lyon (seems the guy can't get along with anybody ; he was nearly kicked out of Lyon, and apparently already has a feud with Cissé), Koné, the deceptively quick pocket striker from Nice, will add up with Niang, Valbuena and Cissé. Their only major loss is in the playmaker Nasri to Arsenal, who you will learn to know. The guy has the talent, but I have worries about his will, as well as his ability to stay healthy.

- Monaco : high budget, low results. After last season's blunder, they scale down, and don't make a splash on the market. They lose Monsoreau and Piquionne, and only get Adu on loan, as well as Jean-Jacques Gosso, a defensive midfielder from Ivory Coast who seems like the player to follow, as he has been extremely impressive last week against Paris. They'll probably settle for the 10th-spot.

- Nancy : after last season's surprising run atop the league, they have lost some pieces : Sauget (Saint-Etienne), Puygrenier (Zenit St-Petersburg), Kim (wherever), and tried to replace them : Calvé will take Sauget's spot (right-back), after coming from Le Mans. The guy's good, very tall and athletic, and they also bring Julien Féret, one of the best midfielders in last season's Ligue 2. I expect them to be steady, around the 6-7th place.

- Nantes : just promoted, after spending only a year in the purgatory. (Before that, they had the longest tenure in Ligue 1, having stayed there for 45 seasons consecutively, winning 8 titles in the process.) I know the club particularly well, since this is the city I live in, and the prognosis I make is much bleaker than a lot of the pundit's. Their coach is an absolute moron, and being a good motivator just isn't enough at this level. You gotta have some brains, too, and him... well, not really the case. Still, the owner (Seriously, I'll have to dedicate another comment to the man, he's really a headcase) spent "lavishly" (unreasonably for the club, at least). Got Klasnic (free agent, Werder Bremen), Gravgaard (fullback, Copenhagen), and 2 or 3 other scrubs. Sadly, this probably will be too little to compete, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them fall again in Ligue 2.

- Nice : after a good run, this team is being quite dismantled : they lose 4 starters, and probably the best ones (Lloris, Ederson, Koné, Balmont). They brought on Faé (defensive midfielder, Reading) to replace Balmont, and Rémy (striker, Lyon) for Koné, but these are tough guys to replace. They'll probably fight to stay in the league, but their coach is, despite his love for violence (the man has run Bastia in the 90's, which was probably one of the roughest teams in French soccer history. Check that video for evidence : . Sorry 'bout the music, this is traditional corsican music, and these guys are... year, I'll say the word, retarded.), a good coach, and his teams usually play a, although quite scholar and predictably, enjoyable football.

- Paris : Reader warning : this is the team I root for. Yep. After an extremely disappointing season, to say the least, this team will try to rebound and climb up the ladder to go in a rank more suited to the club. For that, were brought such tested veterans as Makelele or Giuly, who will bring experience to the clubhouse for youngsters such as Sakho (full-back, 19-years old, captain of the young Bleus, and a monster in 2 or 3 years), Chantôme, or Hoarau, a very tall and talented striker, coming from Le Havre. This guy has the size (he's something like 6'4), the skills, the speed, and if he's more agressive to get the ball, wow. But there are some big questions marks about the depth, and even the talent, of the defense. So... we'll see.

- Rennes : owned by the billionnaire François Pinault, this team is determined to spend the minimum. Go figure. Still, it managed to get nice results the past few seasons, after throwing away more money in the end of the 90's than Pacman Jones in a Vegas club. This is the result of nice pickups, as well as a newfound taste for the youth team. They scout all over France to get the best young talent, and that shows, since they constantly put at least 2 or 3 "homegrown" players on the field (Borne, Lemoine, Briand, MBia, Danzé, Pouplin (now gone), Ekoko, Sow...). A club that makes no noise, but which produces. They got Bocanegra (Fulham), Asamoah Gyan (striker from Ghana who played in Italy), and Douchez (good GK from Toulouse), but that could still be short to maintain that 5th place. They lost a very important player in John Mensah (Lyon), and are questionable on the defensive side. Plus, some of their players are really aging, and their durability might be a problem. Picture them around the 7-8th place.

- Saint-Etienne : one of the most storied clubs of France, they got back nicely after spending nearly a decade in Ligue 2. They keep building, and while losing nobody important, they added some players (Matsui, right-midfield, Le Mans ; Monsoreau, fullback, Monaco ; Sauget, left-back, Nancy), and it's reasonable to see them around the 6th place.

- Sochaux : a middle-of-the-pack team, trying just to stay in the league. Not much to say, their coach is a good guy, they lost some players, recruited others, blah blah blah... frankly, I could care less about them.

- Toulouse : 3rd in 2006-07, 17th in 2007/2008. Can't think of more irregular than that, although the heartbeat of NFL players may compete (not funny, I know). Lost their best (who said only ?) player, Johan Elmander, to Bolton, as well as many others (Achille Emana, a powerful midfielder, to Sevilla, Douchez, Dieuze, Santos, Batlles). As much as they tried to compensate these departures (Carrasso as GK, Didot, from Rennes, for Emana, Cetto, from Nantes, Soren Larsen, from Schalke 04), they'll probably be at the 13th-14th spot.

- Valenciennes : I hate these guys. They're a bunch of no-names, and they get more than respectable results, compared to the poverty of their roster. Lost their best striker, and I hope they'll go down. Yeah, I hate them.

Note : yeah, my rankings prediction might contradict, and I probably predicted too much teams in some ranks, but hey, who cares.

Anyway, if you want a more detailed preview (but an ex-post one, you know), or a team-by-team analysis, just say.