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Aug 7, 2014

French Ligue 1 preview

ESPN FC's Frank Leboeuf thinks Paris Saint-Germain have it too easy in Ligue 1 and wants to see more challengers to the French superpower.

Last year, and for the second season running, Ligue 1 was coloured blue and red and spoke Swedish. PSG and Zlatan Ibrahimovic dominated the French league from start to finish, even if Monaco and Lille stayed close until Christmas. The gap between the Paris club and the rest was far too big as Laurent Blanc and his men enjoyed a brilliant double -- the first in their history -- by adding the League Cup, too. Ibra was the king of France one again with a breathtaking season in front of goal (26 goals in the league; 41 in all competitions) and his back-heel volley against Bastia was one of the best ever seen in the French top flight.

Key European club fixtures

French Ligue 1 -- Aug. 8
FA Community Shield: Manchester City vs. Arsenal -- Aug. 10
German Super Cup: Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich -- Aug. 13
English Premier League -- Aug. 16
Spanish Super Cup: Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid -- Aug. 19 and 22
Spanish La Liga/German Bundesliga -- Aug. 23
Italian Serie A -- Aug. 30

What to watch in 2014-15

Paris get stronger

While other clubs lose their best players (James Rodriguez at Monaco or Mathieu Valbuena at Marseille), PSG keep getting stronger, and financial fair play seems to have had little impact on the champions' transfer dealings. They were still able to pay Chelsea 50 million pounds for David Luiz; they managed to bring talented right-back Serge Aurier on loan from Toulouse; and the acquisition of Angel Di Maria from Real Madrid is still very much on the cards at the time of writing.

Laurent Blanc wanted a stronger squad and he got it. They will once again dominate the league and could be crowned champions very early on. The biggest objective this season, however, will be to shine more brightly in Europe and at least reach the Champions League semifinals. That's where the pressure will be for the manager and the players.

Blanc will also try to change his tactical system. The 4-3-3 formation from last season should change to a 4-4-1-1, with Ibra dropping behind Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan striker was vocal in his desire to stop playing wide like he did last year, and the coach has promised him a more central role for the coming campaign. PSG lined up this way in the last 20 minutes of their win against Guingamp in the French Community Shield (2-0) and it's a formation that seems to suit their star players a bit better, which is dangerous for the rest of the league.

How can Leonardo Jardim close the gap at the top?

Blurred lines at Monaco

The problem when you lose one of your top players is not so much how to play without him, it's more how to replace him. James Rodriguez has left Monaco and, currently, no one has been signed to replace him.

Leonardo Jardim's team is still a work in progress. Yes, star striker Falcao is still there and it looks like he will stay this season but, around him, the runners up from last season are not ready: they lack creativity offensively and solidity at the back. Despite the money received for James (over 70 million pounds) and the deep pockets of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, Monaco have struggled to attract world-class players, unlike last year when James, Falcao, Joao Moutinho and Geoffrey Kondogbia arrived. The new FFP rules are one of the reasons but it's also a question of standard: even with a place in the Champions League, Monaco are finding it hard to convince the best to come to the principality. That said, the last three weeks of August should be very busy; it's just a matter of who they can attract.

The Bielsa revolution

The whole town is already in love with him. Marseille has not even played a single competitive game yet, new coach Marcelo Bielsa has not even given a news conference, but the most footballing city in France is already under the charm of El Loco (his nickname translates as "the crazy one.") It is a marriage made in heaven and Argentine Bielsa, 59, has put a smile back on every Marseille fan's face so far. Everybody is on board for his revolution. Since arriving at the club in June from Athletic Bilbao, he has changed everything: from top to bottom; on and off the pitch.

After a poor last campaign (finishing sixth) where the team didn't qualify for Europe for the first time in 10 years, l'OM needed a fresh start. Instead they are getting a complete and rather brutal makeover. The winds of change may look like they are having an impact at the moment, but only the results on the pitch will make Bielsa a hero in the history of the club. Either that or it will all end in tears ...

David Luiz will be fun to watch whatever happens.

Notable signings

At 50 million pounds, PSG pounced to make David Luiz the most expensive defender in history before the World Cup. One disastrous semifinal (and third-place game) later, and Brazilian defender has arrived in Paris to train with his new teammates. He won't be ready for the first couple of league games but he is the biggest curiosity of this new season. Was he worth the cash? Will he be a disaster or a saviour? Only time will tell, but his partnership with Thiago Silva could bear fruit.

There could also be a Belgian bunfight at the top of the table. Michy Batshuayi has signed for Marseille from Standard de Liege for 7 million pounds, and Belgian World Cup star Divock Origi has been loaned back to Lille for the season after his transfer to Liverpool for a fee of around 10 million pounds. Meanwhile, Dutch striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel will try to revive his career on loan at St Etienne after his failure at Norwich.

For the rest, there has been a lot of movement in between French clubs (Aurier from Toulouse to PSG; Romain Alessandrini from Rennes to Marseille; Wahbi Khazri from Bastia to Bordeaux; Lindsay Rose from Valenciennes to Lyon; Jordan Ayew from Marseille to Lorient) and a lot of managerial changes: seven in total! Bordeaux (Willy Sagnol), Bastia (Claude Makelele), Marseille (Bielsa), Lyon (Hubert Fournier), Reims (Jean-Luc Vasseur), Lorient (Sylvain Ripoll) and Monaco (Jardim).

Marquee departures

James Rodriguez will be missed by the French league.

Monaco bought James Rodriguez from FC Porto for 35 million pounds last year and sold him 12 months later to Real Madrid for twice that. James' wonderful World Cup with Colombia (where he finished as top scorer with six goals) ensured he became the next Galactico transfer. Ligue 1 has lost a massive talent, but he is not the only one.

At nearly 30 years of age, and after eight years at the Velodrome Stadium, Mathieu Valbuena decided to leave Marseille -- signing for Dynamo Moscow for a fee of 5 million pounds and film-star wages. Alex and Jeremy Menez were out of contract at PSG and both went to AC Milan. Bafetimbi Gomis was in the same position at Lyon and chose Swansea, while Eric Abidal was sold by Monaco to Greek side Olympiakos.

Who will win it all?

Once again, it's PSG against the rest. The capital club are odds on to win a third league title in a row, and it already looks like no one will be able to stop them. Before the summer, they already had the best squad in the country but with the players they have added, it's even worse for the 19 other clubs in the league. You can already bet on the number of points that will separate them and the team in second place (probably Monaco).

Ibra is already in top form as we saw against Guingamp last week when the giant Swede scored twice to give the club its first trophy of the season. At the back, Thiago Silva and David Luiz will form the best (and the most expensive) centre-back partnership ever seen in French football. Add to that Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marco Verratti, Blaise Matuidi, Lucas Moura and, even without another star name like Di Maria, it is very likely that they will win the league comfortably once again this season.

PSG picked up the double last season.

Battle at the bottom

Outside of the title race, this season looks to be one of the most competitive ever in the league and you have to feel for the three promoted teams: Metz, Caen and Lens. They are not looking like they are equipped right now to stay up. But the example of Guingamp last season, who managed to stay in Ligue 1 while even winning the French Cup will be encouraging. Metz and Caen have tried to be clever as they have little money in the transfer market to strengthen their squad, while Lens have been banned from recruiting players because of financial issues between the league and their owner.

They all need a good start to get some confidence and momentum early on or their season could be very long. Guingamp will struggle domestically because of their involvement in the Europa League; Evian will be in the battle against relegation as always; while Nantes could be dragged into a fascinating battle for survival with Metz, Caen and Lens.

Julien Laurens

A French football journalist based in London working for Le Parisien, RTL, BT Sport and ESPN.

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