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Aug 2, 2009

The Ballad of Dédé and Lolo

Romeo and Juliet they might not be, but Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps could - almost - be the stars of a footballing remake of William Shakespeare's classic tale of tough love.

The two former international team-mates may not be devoted to each other in the carnal sense, but there is more than a mutual respect between the two men who hung up their international spurs together after the European championships in 2000.

They even have pet names for each other, 'Dédé' and 'Lolo,' which - while sounding like on-stage monikers for dancers at the Moulin Rouge - are perfectly acceptable journalistic shorthand for the two men who will dominate the upcoming Ligue 1 season, each encamped at the heart of the other's nemesis.

Lolo's Girondins de Bordeaux are current top dogs, of course, having snaffled the title for the first time in a decade, whipping it away from under the noses of Eric Gerets' Marseille in the second-half of the season with a streak of invincibility only previously seen in Marvel comics.

Much of the success was down to the skills of Yoann 'the new Zidane Mark XVII' Gourcuff, who has now made his switch to Bordeaux a permanent one, having spent last season on loan from AC Milan. The signing was a crucial one, not just in the sense of Blanc having France's brightest up-and-coming star at his disposal, but also that his side's whole game revolved around Gourcuff, like that of France in the Zizou era. Had young Yoann decided to give Bordeaux's offer a Gallic shrug and head for more exclusive climes, Blanc would have been forced into a major tactical re-think.

The arrival of Cédric Carrasso, whose displays for Toulouse last season earned him an international call-up, and Czech international Jaroslav Plasil has added further quality. Carrasso is a particularly useful addition given the club's need to replace the ageing Ulrich Ramé, and help cushion the blow of losing centre-half Souleymane Diawara.

There had been a touching moment of almost tear-jerking proportions when - in the cut-throat, dog-eat-dog world of modern football - Dédé and Lolo called a truce, promising not to cherry-pick the other's top talents. However, such was the attraction of Marseille for Diawara that he engineered himself a move to the Stade Vélodrome without Dédé having to do the dirty on his friend.

"We've got the title, you've got the traitor," snapped the catchiest of banners displayed in Diawara's honour as he faced up to his former team-mates in a pre-season friendly won 2-1 by Bordeaux in July. With Blanc having secured the excellent but inexperienced Michaël Ciani from Lorient as a replacement, it is definitely Round One to Lolo.

The pair meet again in late August in an early-season title six-pointer, and the more significant Round Two could be Dédé's, especially if Bordeaux fail to convince Marouane Chamakh that the sun, sea and sand of Sunderland is not quite the same as that of the Bay of Biscay. In the injury-enforced absence of Fernando Cavenaghi, Chamakh provided both guts and goals as he single-handedly spearheaded the title charge.

Chamakh's shenanigans and a sapping trans-Atlantic trip to play the French equivalent of the Community Shield in Montreal aside, Lolo's summer has been one of quiet preparation, barely ruffled by Gabriel Obertan's nomination for 'Unlikeliest Transfer of the Summer' in heading for Manchester United.

Dédé's close season, on the other hand, has been typically Marseillaise, worthy of the soap opera - Plus Belle la Vie - which is based in the city. Having no sooner made a prodigal return to the club where he led the first French side to win the European Cup, Deschamps found himself without the president who had appointed him, and then saw club owner, Robert Louis-Dreyfus, tragically die of leukaemia.

If that was not enough, two members of the crew setting up the stage for Madonna's summer concert in the Stade Vélodrome were killed when the structure collapsed during construction. The on-going investigation into the incident means Marseille will have to play their first home game - a testing tie with Lille - along the Mediterranean coast in Montpellier.

Despite the disruption, Deschamps has worked quickly to build an impressive squad on the foundations of that left by Gerets. While a number of players have been bought to fill gaps - Edouard Cissé, formerly of West Ham United, being one - others are singularly impressive purchases.

Lucho Gonzalez has been coaxed from Porto for €18m, while the powerful Stéphane Mbia - who had been tipped to leave Rennes for Everton - has also been tempted south to more than offset the loss of Lorik Cana. Gabriel Heinze, a former PSG favourite, will also add steel and competition to the back four, OM's soft spot last season.

The most intriguing move, though, is Deschamps' cajoling Fernando Morientes into returning to Ligue 1. The ex-Spanish international was the inspiration behind the French boss' unheralded Monaco side reaching the 2003-04 Champions League final when on loan from Real Madrid, accounting for his full-time employers and Chelsea en route. After largely joyless seasons at Liverpool and Valencia since, Morientes may again have that thirst to prove the doubters wrong, though - at 33 - the legs may now not be able to deliver on that ambition.

The key with so many new faces will be how they gel, because - man-for-man - Dédé has the better line-up, and he knows it.

"Bordeaux are ahead of us, because you can't make up the advantage gained by months of work in just a month-and-a-half. Luckily, the individual talent of my players can make up for the lack of a team," said Lolo's best mate. "I don't know if it'll be enough to dethrone Bordeaux or battle with Lyon, but it's not bad."

The man who could poop the Dédé and Lolo love-in is 'Pu-pu,' although straight-laced Lyon coach Claude Puel is probably not known to his friends by that moniker. After a 'transitional year,' Puel knows that another season 'in-between titles' will simply not do.

The signing of Aly Cissokho should provide the answer to Lyon's persistent troubles at left-back - if the ex-Porto man, who has made just 28 appearances in the Portuguese top flight since quitting amateur club Guegnon a year ago, can continue his steep developmental curve - while the excellent Michel Bastos will provide the flair the now-departed Juninho previously offered.

Puel, though, must be concerned whether the 17 league goals Karim Benzema scored last season will be replaced. With the €35m banked from Real Madrid for their prize asset, Lyon have purchased Lisandro Lopez from Porto and Bafetimbi Gomis from arch-rivals Saint-Etienne, opting for the latter when they failed to prise last season's Ligue 1 top scorer, André-Pierre Gignac, away from Toulouse. Lopez looks the surer bet of the two, with Gomis woefully inept last season, and Puel must be hoping Bastos can reproduce the 14 league strikes he contributed to Lille's cause last season in his new habitat.

Despite Lyon failing to pick up the title for the first time in eight seasons, Puel was never in danger of losing his job, though no less than nine clubs did change coach over the summer. It would have been ten as Lille sacked Rudi Garcia, despite the ex-Le Mans boss leading them to fifth place last season, before deciding the best man to take the club onward and upward was Garcia himself and promptly handed him a three-year contract extension.

Having signed a two-year contract extension of his own early in the year, there was no such upheaval for Blanc. The same might not be true next summer with Raymond Domenech almost certain to leave Les Bleus come what may in South Africa, should the French even qualify.

Blanc, who was pipped to the post by Domenech in 2004, would be among the favourites to take on the role, and - on this count at least - Dédé has already conceded defeat. "I'm realistic," he claimed. "I know that if the position is free, it'll be Lolo."

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