EUROPEAN football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) casts his eye over the new Ligue 1 season in France, picking out the best bets.
Ligue 1 2015/16
Money talks in football and no more so than France. Lyon destroyed the field in the noughties during Jean-Michel Aulas' early years, winning seven titles on the spin, and now the Qatari cash cow backing PSG has seen the capital club collect a hat-trick of Le Championnat trophies at a best price of just 4/11.
But it wasn’t always this way. Lyon themselves were turned over as 4/5 favourites in 2008/09 by 11/2 shots Bordeaux and 12 months later Auxerre finished third having been quoted at 500/1 in pre-season. Then there’s the tale of Montpellier being crowned kings of the country at 80/1 in 2011/12. Heady days for French football fans.
However, despite the Parisian dominance, Ligue 1 was arguably the destination for the best title race across the top European leagues last season. PSG did finish up eight points clear of the pack and although they will almost certainly justify their 1/6 (Ladbrokes) odds and retain their title, French football isn’t the one-club-league it can often be portrayed as.
At the beginning of April, PSG, Lyon, Marseille and Monaco were separated by just six points. I’d snap your hand up for a repeat of such a captivating campaign but things are likely to revert to the norm this time around. There’s been a serious talent drain across the Channel this summer leaving moneybags Les Rouge-et-Bleu in charge and unlikely to be challenged.
As suggested in the previous paragraph, the 2015/16 Ligue 1 title is highly likely to end up in PSG’s hands for the fourth successive season. Laurent Blanc’s charges never appeared fully focussed on their domestic duties last term but still managed to collect the treble – the first team to ever accomplish the feat in France.
At times it was a dogfight; the squad was hampered and restricted by a number of injuries to key players. Challenging for Champions League honours also left the Parisians fatigued but PSG return refreshed and charged for another bash at adding European glory whilst ruling the roost domestically.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic influence might be waning with age and injury but the imminent arrival of Angel Di Maria should add more menace to an already frightening first XI for the rest of France’s top tier to deal with. In Marco Verratti, Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta, PSG boast one of the continent’s classiest midfield’s and whilst Brazilian trio Thiago Silva, David Silva and Marquinhos have their moments defensively, they’re all still a class above the opposition.
The betting does get interesting when looking at the Without PSG or the Top-3 Finish markets where Monaco, Lyon and Marseille are squeezed a little tighter ahead of the rest of the pack. But there’s plenty of reason to believe Monaco are the side worth siding with in both markets at decent prices.
As I alluded to right at the beginning of this piece, money talks. Last year’s Champions League run will have netted the principality club huge sums compared to the rest of the French stragglers and with Les Rouges et Blancs hoping to be involved in the group-stages yet again this season, cash flow isn’t an issue.
However, Les Monegasques’ are no longer throwing money about on big-name players. They’re looking to operate in a similar way to Porto – snapping up talented youngsters before selling them on for vast profit and we can see that in their shrewd summer business. Out have gone Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Geoffrey Kondogbia with Adama Traore, Fares Bahouli, Ivan Cavaleiro and Stephan El Shaarawy all joining.
Traore was the best player at the U20 World Cup and if El Shaarawy can steer clear of injuries he’ll be a big step up from Ferreira Carrasco; the prospect of seeing Anthony Martial and Bernando Silva with the young Italian in an attacking trio certainly excites.
Question marks remain over Kondogbia’s replacement in midfield but defensively, their strongest point in 2014/15, the side is untouched with Aymen Abdennour still on the books to organise from centre-half. Fabinho has signed a long-term deal and goalkeeper Daniel Subasic will expect his backline to go close to equalling their impressive tally of 20 clean sheets.
Last season the club entered the campaign in a state of flux with new boss Leonardo Jardim taking over a team that had lost star talents Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez. But despite their ongoing involvement in the Champions League, they still managed to finish in the top-three following an excellent second half of the season and should have no issues this time around repeating that feat should the young guns fire.
Ladbrokes make Monaco a 17/20 shot to finish in the Top-3 which looks an excellent price but a wiser investment is to take Monaco in the Without PSG market at 9/5 (Paddy Power). All signs point towards another improved campaign under Jardim’s watch and they’re easily the next best team behind the defending champions.
Lyon supporters are understandably buoyant about 2015/6. Champions League football returns for the first time since 2011/12 and the club are opening a brand new stadium in early 2016. But having ran PSG so close last year, can Les Gones cope with the added man-power of Champions League excursions on top of a charge of the Ligue 1 title? I don’t think so.
OL benefitted considerably from their lack of European distractions and although their vibrant attacking football was a joy to watch, I can’t help but feel they overachieved. A 72-goal haul was incredibly impressive and the trident of Clinton N’Jie, Nabil Fekir and Alexandre Lacazette have stayed ont but goalkeeper Anthony Lopes was just as important at the other end, making up for an, at times, haphazard defence.
During Lacazette’s injury absences, Fekir and N’Jie failed to perform and although the smart addition of Guingamp’s 17-goal Claudio Beauvue should at least ease the burden on the number one forward, news that midfield mystro Clement Grenier is sidelined for four months hasn’t gone down to well at the Stade Gerland.
For me, Lyon are a fragile prospect. Jeremy Morel’s signing weakens top-three rivals Marseille and strengthens Les Gones at left-back but I’ll need convincing the current crop is good enough for their battle at home and abroad. Pre-season preparations have been described by coach Hubert Fournier as ‘disturbing’ while rumours of unrest in the dressing room are growing; at 9/10 (Bwin) they remain solid in the Top-3 Finish market but are likely to regress.
The aforementioned Marseille are the club to steer well clear of. Having led Ligue 1 from September to January, Les Phocéens’ epic collapse saw Marcelo Bielsa’s troops finish fourth, contemplating Europa League football rather than a first title in five years. Missing out on the Champions League has proven a devastating consequence with an exodus of talent leaving Stade Velodrome.
Six of last season’s 11 mainstays have departed – GianellI Imbula, Dimitri Payet, Andre Ayew, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Rod Fanni and Jeremy Morel – that’s a drain of 43 goals and 26 assists from last term with the incoming names are a genuine step-down in quality. Lucas Ocampos joins permanently with Abou Diaby, Lassana Diarra, Javi Manquillo and Marim Rekik the pick of the new faces – Diaby and Diarra haven’t played competitively for over a year!
Bielsa’s sides are always great fun to watch but the same old problems continue to plague his progress. The open, high-tempo, high-pressing football that leads to an avalanche of opportunities at both ends of the field is great fun for a neutral but it’s kamikaze and also exhausting for those carrying out his military instructions. It was no surprise to see L’OM fade away towards the end of matches and season with the Argentine rarely rotating his pool of players.
The squad’s no deeper than this time 12 months and with a Europa League trail ahead, tiredness and fatigue will no doubt come into play again. Nicolas Nkoulou’s return from injury should bolster the defence but the side are still horrendously short at centre-half and it’s hard to believe they’ll be able to replace the influence of midfield pair Payet and Imbula. A big season is expected (and needed) from Michy Batshuayi at the head of the attack of an inexperienced group but ultimately they’ll be left flagging when the going gets tough. Therefore, 11/4 (Bwin) odds on a Top-3 Finish should be ignored.
French football is often tarnished by it’s reputation for defence-first football and one of the biggest perpetrators to back up that view is St Etienne. If you want to be sent to sleep and bored silly then Les Verts are your team and although Christophe Galtier’s charges are rather good at stifling opposition attacks, they’ve just lost their prized asset to Bournemouth.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say Max Gradel carried St Etienne last season even though the club finished just two points off a top-three finish, missing out on their first Champions League appearance since 1982. Gradel was electric in possession and his unpredictable approach left many defenders bamboozled.
Without the former Leeds flyer it’s hard to see Les Verts featuring in the end-of-season shake-up – they were ranked 11th in shots-per-game in 2014/15, Gradel’s replacement Romain Hamouma is nowhere near the same player and they still desperately lack a striker. Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Mevlut Erding and Gradel’s departures mean a loss of 32 from last year's 51 league goals and the captures of Nolan Roux and retained Kévin Théophile-Catherine leave the side slightly weaker on paper.
You can put a big black mark through Lille’s prospects. Les Dogues have lost their standout youngster Adama Traore, their star midfielder Idrissa Gueye, their most potent forward Nolan Roux, their outstanding centre-half Simon Kjaer and seen the loan spells of Rony Lopes and Divock Origi expire and are now under the tutelage of Herve Renard.
Renard guided Ivory Coast to the African Cup of Nations title in January, his second ACON trophy, but has only coached in Ligue 1 for less than a full season – a disastrous spell that saw Sochaux relegated in 2013/14. Eleven names have been drafted in to plug the gaps and after a difficult campaign in 2014/15, it’s hard to find the positives to suggest they’ll improve upon their eighth-place finish, even with the emergence of Sofiane Boufal tearing defences apart.
Bordeaux are perhaps the likeliest from behind the big-four to challenge for a Champions League place. A promising start to Sagnol’s reign dissipated during winter months but the January capture of Clement Chantome galvanised the team, made them stronger defensively and set in motion a number of eye-catching performances.
Cheick Diabate returns from injury to lead an exciting front three including Diego Rolan and Whabi Kahazzri making their attack a match for he majority of Ligue 1. Brazilian right-back Mariano will be missed but Les Girondins are certainly a stronger proposition than 12 months ago, having had a full year working under Sagnol’s watch.
Last season Bordeaux failed to drop below seventh, finishing their campaign with a Eurpoa League place in sixth. With a tightened defence, capable midfield and fearsome forward line, the 2009 champions will hope to piece the Top-3 market and are well worth a poke at 5/1 (Bet365). A safer play would be to back Les Girondins to finish in the Top-6 and that’s available at 5/4 with 188BET.
Best Of The Rest
Twelve months ago 22 players left and 24 were signed by Rennes but they’ve had a much quieter summer this time around – the solid spine of the side remains intact and if Philippe Montanier can coax a bit more out of the squad (excluding Paul-Georges Ntep) in forward areas, they should go close to a top-six finish and Europa League qualification despite supporters craving for stability.
Montpellier managed to snare Ryad Bouzebouz from penniless Bastia but have lost Lucas Barrios’ goals during the off-season and so a repeat of their seventh-placed finish may prove a tall order. Since promotion to the top-flight La Paillade have finished champions and as low as 15th so although they’ve retained the bulk of last season’s squad, the upper reaches of mid-table looks likeliest unless Kevin Berigaud makes his mark up top.
Nantes are an interesting proposition. The crippling blow of losing star midfielder Jordan Veretout may be reversed by the captures of Kobeinn Sighthorsson and Emiliano Sala. Last season the Canaries scored just 29 goals with Veretout arguably keeping their offensive output afloat. The club’s not finished in the top-half of France’s elite since 2004 and although they’re experts in disruption, signs suggest highly-rated boss Michel Der Zakarian is looking to implement more attacking impetus into the side following the end of their transfer embargo.
The Stade de la Beaujoire is always rammed to the rafters with a passionate home support and with shackles released, I’d like to think the Breton club can begin to think about a top-half finish. Concerns remain over their small squad size but in Der Zakarian they have a talented coach able to guide the Canaries in the right direction.
Let’s talk about the enigma that is Caen next. The newly-promoted side had won twice coming into 2015 but somehow, someway, Patrice Garande managed to inject a staggering improvement in play from SMC that saw the minnows eventually rise to finish in 13th. I’m inclined to think the man is a genius.
When they were good, they were stunning. When they were bad, they were disastrous. But the high stakes, all-out approach worked more often than not in the second-half of the season – Garande’s men collected 31 of their 46 points after Christmas. Sure, defensively they’re one of the worst in the division and the loss of N’Golo Kante, Nicolas Benezet and Thomas Lemar robs them of three of their best performers, but if they can continue to cipher out as many efforts on goal (7th in 2014/15) they should be fine.
Toulouse finished in 17th last term, five points above the drop zone, but the decision to part ways with Ligue 1’s longest-serving coach Alain Casanova in March and the promotion of Dominique Arribage into the head coach’s hot-seat worked a treat. There’s enough quality in the ranks to believe TFC will be just fine. Les Violets are hugely reliant on Wissam Ben Yedder (scorer of 33% of their goals) but I reckon they’ll return to par this time around.
Just two teams will suffer relegation from Ligue 1 following a ridiculous ruling by the French Football League, making our task of picking a drop zone candidate even more difficult. Teeny GFC Ajaccio have most to fear following an incredible rise to the top tier from the National divisions in France and are solid 13/8 (Bet365) shots for relegation.
Le Gaz won promotion to Ligue 1 for the first time in history having finished runners-up in Ligue 2 on the league’s lowest annual budget of £5m. Their campaign was built on their imperious home form (W13-D4-L2) at their atmospheric 3,000 capacity Stade Ange-Casanova stadium but any failure to follow that return could see cheers turn to tears quickly. GFCA managed just W5-D7-L7 away from their Corsican island home and it’s worrying to discover only seven sides kept fewer clean sheets in the second tier. Still, the island derby with Bastia should be fun.
Ligue 2 champions Troyes (5/2 BetBright) deserve our backing, for now. Jean-Marc Furlan’s squad have an air of stability about them and in on-loan Corentin Jean, a talented young striker capable of making the step up. They’re a team that focuses on the collective rather than the individual and should have enough to escape the bottom-two having finished 13 points clear of the pack last term.
It’s also worth giving Angers (13/8 Bet365) a chance to prove themselves. It’s over 20 years since Le Sco were last a Ligue 1 team – they were playing third-tier football as recently as 2007 – but the club’s been rebuilt impressively. Stéphane Moulin’s steady hand guides the ship and although January’s loss of Sofiane Boufal and the summer departure of top scorer Jonathan Kodjia may well hurt, 12 new arrivals, including the signatures of Ligue 2’s cream should help flesh out the squad at Stade Jean-Bouin.
That leaves us with five. Guingamp have lost 28 of their 41 goals during the off-season and should strongly be fancied to dip after their 2014/15 heroics. Looking down and out in December, Jocelyn Gourvennec rallied the troops to an fabulous 10th-placed finish as well as a run to the Round of 32 of the Europa League. Claudio Beauvue and Christophe Mandanne’s goals will be difficult to replace but Jimmy Briand and Mana Dembele’s arrivals suggest Gourvennec may have pulled two rabbits out of the hat and 11/2 (Sportingbet) relegation may be staved off.
Nice (12/1 Betfair) often flatter to deceive and whilst they’ve sold their best player Jordan Amavi to Aston Villa, a promising pre-season with a number of talented academy prospects alongside Hatem Ben Arfa suggests they should be good enough to keep their heads above water. Experienced Claude Puel is in charge of the youngest squad in the division but a lack of experience could easily count against Les Aiglons if the going gets tough.
Reims held the dubious honour of owning the league’s worst defence last term and they’ve barely strengthend their squad in the summer. Benjamin Moukandjo’s on his bike putting extra emphasis on David Ngog to deliver the goods. At 7/2 (Bet365) they’ll go close to dropping again but the price is probably about right.
Lorient lost Jordan Ayew, also to Villa, during the off-season. The Ghanaian was involved in 39% of their league goals as under pressure Sylvain Ripoll’s charges scraped over the line. Raphael Guerreiro’s future remains in doubt but there’s hope Moryke Fofana could fill the goals void whilst Moukandjo’s arrival should add thrust from midfield. Their artificial surface at Stade du Moustoir makes them dangerous opposition at home and whilst I expect them to finish outside the bottom-two, you can’t ignore bulbous 10/1 (Sportingbet) quotes on relegation.
Finally, Bastia also go into the book at 11/2 (Bet365). The desperate financial position of the club meant the bulk of last season’s leading lights have decamped to balance the books and avoid immediate relegation a necessity. Playmaker Ryad Bouzebouz was sold to Montpeller whilst Junior Tallo, Alphonse Areola, Giovanni Sio, Guillaume Gillet and Hervin Ongenda’s loans have expired leaving the squad without their star keeper, best midfielder, key forward and two talented attackers.
Ghislain Printant played a marvellous role in guiding the Corsicans to a cup final and 12th-placed finish in 2014/15 but appears to be working with his hands tied behind his back whilst the islanders sort out their finances. With a goals drain and defensive gaps needing to be plugged without a budget available, Bastia may well lose their Ligue 1 status this season.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 7/4 (Ladbrokes) market leader at 5/6 but is well worth avoiding if you’re looking for a punt on the Top Goalscorer market. Rumours continue to circulate that Zlatan may leave the capital club before the end of the transfer market and with age, injury and suspension concerns, I’d be surprised to see the Swede start more than 30 league fixtures this time around.
Alexandre Lacazette took the top honours last term and is 4/1 (Ladbrokes) to retain his crowd whilst Edison Cavani, who pipped Zlatan as top-scoring PSG player, can also be backed at 4/1 (Bet365). The Uruguayan makes most appeal having been promised plenty of game-time as the champions lead striker although Ibrahimvoic’s penalty duties make him untouchable in a win-only heat.
With no each-way betting on offer, I’m happy to invest a small sum in Monaco’s Anthony Martial topping the goalscoring charts at 40/1 (Bet365). Operating in a central role rather than his wide position last season, the talented youngster should thrive in a new vibrant looking side with plenty of service coming from midfield. Premier League clubs have been monitoring Martial’s progress and a big season is expected from those in the principality. At 40/1, he should give us a good run for our money.
Ligue 1 – Monaco without PSG (9/5 Paddy Power)
Ligue 1 – Bordeaux to finish in the Top-3 (5/1 Bet365)
Ligue 1 – GFC Ajaccio to be relegated (13/8 Bet365)
Ligue 1 – Lorient to be relegated (10/1 Sportingbet)
Ligue 1 – Bastia to be relegated (11/2 Bet365)
Ligue 1 – Anthony Martial to be Top goalscorer (40/1 Bet365)