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Aug 7, 2012

PSG primed for French title tilt

It is surely a loss to headline writers everywhere that Christoffer Rambo excels at handball. The Norwegian has moved to Dunkerque this summer meaning the obvious puns will be enjoyed only by the locals in northern France. Those of us who prefer our sport played with the feet had to make do with another Scandinavian import into l'Hexagone, though Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not disappointed.

"I don't know much about Ligue 1," Paris Saint-Germain's €21 million talent candidly remarked when presented to the press, before adding: "But I bet they know everything about me." If they didn't, they will now after the wall-to-wall coverage the arrival of a genuine world star provoked - even the former AC Milan forward's myriad tattoos have been given thorough analysis. However, Ibrahimovic's swapping of one fashion capital for another - for what French politicians have been quick to point out is an "indecent" annual salary of €14 million after tax - should not come as too much of a shock. It is merely the next, logical step on the upward trajectory the club's über-ambitious Qatari owners set it on when they took over a year ago. "I see here the club of the future that I didn't see in Italy," said Ibrahimovic. "Honestly, who wouldn't want to be part of this team?"

'Very few' is the answer. Though ridiculously over-priced at €42 million plus another €7 million in bonuses, Thiago Silva should form a formidable central-defensive tandem with Alex, still comfortably good enough for Ligue 1, while Ezequiel Lavezzi, picked up from Napoli for €26 million, will team up with Javier Pastore and 'Ibra' up front to give Carlo Ancelotti sufficient talent to canter to the Ligue 1 title and compete - if not win - the Champions League. "Any idiot could run PSG with limitless funds," Lens president Luc Dayan said recently. Unfortunately for the rest of Ligue 1, the PSG powers-that-be appear to know what they are doing with their inexhaustible line of credit.

Heavily - and justifiably - criticised at the time, the sacking of Antoine Kombouare and his replacement by Ancelotti now makes much more sense. Try and imagine Ibrahimovic being told to track back by the former Aberdeen defender, and you see why sporting director Leonardo was so keen to bring Ancelotti in. PSG's club badge features a cradle, and appropriately enough plenty of dummies are likely to be spat out, meaning the Italian will need all his managerial wiles to keep the dressing room on an even keel. Nene, second top scorer in Ligue 1 last season, stormed out of the Parc des Princes at half-time after being substituted during the 2-2 friendly draw with Barcelona last weekend; firebrand French international Jeremy Menez was given a one-match ban for insulting a referee during Euro 2012, and is likely to incur Ibra's wrath if he plays with his head down as often as he did last season. Playing second fiddle to Zlatan will undoubtedly prove a problem for many, and even the mild-mannered Guillaume Hoarau is likely to have his hackles up with the new signing pining for his No. 9 shirt. "He can have it," quipped the French international striker, "if he asks me in French."

Only Armageddon-esque in-fighting could derail PSG's rush to the title, however. L'Equipe recently described them as "an elephant among mice", while France Football reported they had "tried in vain to find reasons why PSG won't be champions." The esteemed bi-weekly journal even promised to reimburse the €3 cost of the edition in which they predicted the capital club's triumph come May, "but only for the first 1000 readers. We're not Qataris!" Neither, it seems, are the teams who - ostensibly at least - will stand in PSG's way. At €300 million, PSG's budget is only €55 million less than the combined budgets of Lyon, Marseille and Lille. French politicians have been quick to criticise Ibrahimovic's mammoth salary, though with austerity à la mode both President Francois Hollande, who has promised to "keep an eye on" whether Zlatan pays his estimated €11 million annual tax in France, and PSG's Ligue 1 counterparts are hoping some of the Qatari wealth will come their way.

It has not in terms of transfer fees this summer with PSG buying exclusively from Serie A, so it has been left to Lille to plunder the goodies on the domestic market. Champions in 2011, Rudi Garcia's provincials - third last season - look best-armed to irritate the nouveaux riche from the capital. Though Eden Hazard was lost, the €40 million recouped from Chelsea has been wisely invested. The artful Marvin Martin arrived as €10 million went Sochaux's way, while the club could afford to offer Salomon Kalou enough in wages to tempt him to use his 'get out of Stamford Bridge free' card to move across the Channel and join Martin in helping to replace Hazard. Though his hopes of a move to Newcastle were dashed by the English club's paltry offer for him, the continued presence of French international right-back Mathieu Debuchy is a bonus. With a new stadium to be christened at the first home game of the season, Lille are a club moving in the right direction, but though they have a talented squad and may once again play more attractive football than PSG, they have too much catching up to do, though not nearly as much as two latter-day Ligue 1 heavyweights.

With owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus unwilling - and unable - to match PSG's spending, Marseille's squad will remain largely unchanged from the one which went 11 games without a win in a disastrous second half of last season to leave them with a mid-table finish. "We weren't all pulling in the same direction," centre-back Souleymane Diawara said in a recent interview. Given French Euro 2012 squad member Alou Diarra turned up late for pre-season training, it seems they still aren't.

The departure of coach Didier Deschamps, the victim of a backroom war of attrition with sporting director Jose Anigo, and the appointment of Elie Baup is unlikely to improve matters. Since steering Bordeaux to the Ligue 1 title in 1999, Baup is best known for wearing a cap in the dug-out, and even admitted himself he was not the club's first choice to replace Deschamps. When a squad-wide ban on piercings and Mohawk haircuts was recently imposed, it is said to have been at Anigo's behest. It seems Baup will not be taking the big decisions at the Stade Vélodrome, which is - appropriately enough - undergoing major renovation.

Lyon coach Remi Garde can at least already boast that he has won some silverware this season having seen his team beat Montpellier in the curtain-raising Trophée des Champions in New York. Though he was surely pleased that Spurs failed to match OL's €20 million valuation of Hugo Lloris, Garde must have let out a sigh of frustration when club president Jean-Michel Aulas denounced the "bad influence of the pharaohs and dinosaurs of the dressing room" which contributed to them missing out on Champions League football for the first time since 1999. Habitually astute, Aulas may now regret 'outing' Cris, Aly Cissokho, Michel Bastos and Kim Kallstrom as the culprits with only the latter having left the club to date.

The underlying reason for Aulas' outburst is the fact OL need money, and the quartet would have represented €12.6 million in salaries alone this season. "I hope we'll have a competitive and ambitious squad come the end of the transfer window," said Argentine forward Lisandro Lopez, a high-price purchase of a bygone era. "There's a lot of youth, but it's important the squad matches the club's ambitions." Given Garde is likely to be forced to blood youngsters from OL's academy, some of whom - like Clément Grenier or Maxime Gonalons - have already made a successful transition to the first-team, it is likely to be Aulas' hopes of cost-cutting and not Lisandro's ambitions of on-pitch success which are to be realised.

And what of Montpellier, champions against all expectations last season? Though top scorer Olivier Giroud disappeared off to Arsenal, the south-westerners have managed to hold onto talents such as Younes Belhanda and - unless AC Milan return with a much-improved offer for him - centre-back and captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. They have also dealt smartly within the limited confines of their bank balance. The delightfully creative Anthony Mounier, who came through the ranks at Lyon before shining at lowly Nice, will provide an excellent foil and back-up to Belhanda while Daniel Congre, picked up for €5 million from Toulouse, will add competition and quality at centre-back.

Up front, greater question marks hang over the head of the untested Gaëtan Charbonnier, an ersatz Giroud bought from second division Angers, and still more over that of Emmanuel Herrera. A workhorse forward in the Argentine second division until 2011 when he moved to Chile, Herrera was - appropriately - re-born when he joined a club called Concepcion. Twenty-nine goals in 35 games later, he moved to Club Union Espanola where five strikes in ten Copa Libertadores matches were enough to convince Montpellier to take a €2.8 million punt on him. He is - according to coach René Girard - of a similar profile to Gonzalo Higuain, and apparently likes fishing, so feel free to insert your own 'nets' pun here.

Given their shock title success last season, the champions cannot be entirely written off, but the odds are stacked even higher against them this time. "I'd like PSG to succeed us as it would piss off Marseille," declared Montpellier's rent-a-quote president Louis Nicollin, who is likely to get his wish. The freshly-departed Hazard, meanwhile, promised "Ligue 1 will be exciting" in the coming campaign. It may well be, but PSG no longer play in it - Zlatan & Co. are going to be in a league of their own.

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