This weekend, Ligue 1 is back to kick-start the return of the European football calendar.
Last Saturday’s Trophee des Champions clash between Paris Saint-Germain and Rennes whetted the appetite of fans around the world for the new campaign, with the Parisians coming from behind to win thanks to wonderful goals from Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria.
But can anyone stop PSG? Once again, they find themselves the team to beat, bristling with some of the best offensive talent in the world, including Edinson Cavani, Mbappe and Neymar, who was suspended for that 2-1 win in Shenzhen.
Thomas Tuchel’s side still have hopes of winning the Champions League, despite disappointment in recent seasons, and given the quality that runs throughout their squad, they have to be considered genuine challengers.
Beyond them, though, Ligue 1 looks set to be a thrilling race, with a clutch of teams all realistically chasing the podium over the course of the next 10 months.
After finishing second last season, the pressure is on Lille to maintain the quality they showed last time out. Nicolas Pepe, their star man, and Rafael Leao might have moved on, but Les Dogues have recruited exciting forward players Timothy Weah, Victor Osimhen and Yacine Yazici to replace them.
Lyon, whose frustrating inconsistency cost them last season, have returned with a new look. In the dugout, Sylvinho will command the team while overseeing it all will be club legend Juninho, who has returned to a sporting director role.
Although Nabil Fekir and Ferland Mendy have left the club, Lyon still possess some of the most exciting offensive options in Ligue 1, including the X-factor that is Memphis Depay. As ever, though, there are a glut of youngsters jostling for recognition on the banks of the Rhone, led by Moussa Dembele, last season’s top scorer, the thrilling talent of Martin Terrier and the quicksilver Maxwel Cornet.
The new season will also offer Houssem Aouar the opportunity to assume the mantle of team leader that Fekir left behind.
Monaco, meanwhile, are a team seeking redemption after narrowly missing the relegation playoff spot in what was a quite calamitous 2018-19 campaign. Leonardo Jardim’s side have yet to significantly strengthen in the transfer market but will surely be active before September 2 in order to ensure a European challenge.
Such was the untapped potential at Stade Louis II last season, the expectation is that they will be back challenging for a top-three finish this time around.
Elsewhere, Marseille are another side to have been sluggish over the summer but also hold high expectations of their team. Dario Benedetti has arrived from Boca Juniors but he faces a stiff challenge to replace Mario Balotelli, who left at the end of a highly impressive six-month stint last term.
None of these clubs can consider themselves certain to finish on the podium, which is perhaps one of the most exciting things about the coming season.
Saint-Etienne, who finished a frustrating fourth, will hope to be there or thereabouts, despite losing influential head coach Jean-Louis Gasset over the summer, while Coupe de France winners Rennes showed that they are a new force under the guidance of Julien Stephan, who steered them to famous victories over PSG, Real Betis and Arsenal last season.
Montpellier, though, can lay claim to being the dark horse of Ligue 1 this term. Unlike many of their rivals, who have seen key players or staff depart in the summer, they have maintained a sense of stability and, having strengthened their squad by adding the league’s leading assist-maker last season, Teji Savanier, can go into the new season with a reasonable expectation that they can better last season’s sixth-place finish.
The likes of Nice and Reims also built modest European challenges last season, while Strasbourg and Guingamp, who were ultimately relegated, reached the Coupe de la Ligue final, so the competitiveness throughout the league remains as fierce as usual.
Meanwhile, there are few signs that the talent that France is famous for developing is drying up, with the likes of Boubakary Soumare of Lille, Eduardo Camavinga at Rennes and Mohamed Diaby of Nantes amid a myriad of youngsters who will become household names over the next year.
With something riding on near every game and the stars of tomorrow – and today – on display all around the country, Ligue 1 2019-20 promises to be as thrilling and rewarding as ever.