Ligue 1 may be a little way off from the so-called big four European leagues, but if it is ever going to compete in terms of players and global TV revenues, it is at the Champions League where it needs to do its legwork. Without a finalist since 2003/4 or a semi-finalist since 2009/10, you have to go back as far as 1992/93 to the inaugural UEFA Champions League to find the last French team to reign in Europe.
Fabian Barthez remains the only captain of a French side to get his hands on the famous trophy, and to be honest it has been slim pickings ever since that night in Munich. So will this year be any different? Will PSG finally be able to break through their current quarter final hoodoo? Let’s look at the chances of the league’s representatives this year, and see if anyone is likely to go one better than Les Bleus managed in the summer.
This really has to be the year when PSG make the next step in terms of the Champions League. Winning the league at a canter will cease to quell the fans’ or owners’ frustrations, and if they are a club that truly sees itself dining at the top table of European football, a semi-final place is a must this time around. There is an argument that they have been unlucky in recent years – going out on away goals twice – but there is a point when it ceases to be bad luck, and questions need to be asked regarding the team’s mentality and all round ability to grind out the all-important results. Parallels can be drawn with Manchester City, who also took some time to find their feet in the competition. But whereas PSG seem to have found their level – and a ceiling, the Manchester club appear to have learned from past experiences and mistakes and have made definite progress.
Their success or failure will largely hinge on two factors. The first is whether new manager Unai Emery can emulate his cup success he enjoyed at Sevilla. He steered the Spanish club to a record- breaking hat trick, winning the Europa League for three successive years and there is no doubt that achievement was paramount in him being brought to Paris. Whether he can replicate that success on the bigger stage, having to deal with the added pressure and bigger egos that come with it is the sword by which he will live or die by.
The other factor of course is what happens in the transfer window. At the time of writing, they appear to be very much weaker than they were last season, principally down to the loss of Ibrahimovic. Grzegorz Krychowiak has followed Emery from Sevilla, and Hatem Ben Arfa and Thomas Meunier have also been added to the ranks, but they still appear to be lacking that spark of creative genius that will be the difference in the knockout stages. With rumours of Edinson Cavani and Blaise Matuidi also being sought by Chelsea and Manchester United respectively, it is paramount the owners get their chequebook out and make that big marquee signing. Real Madrid striker Jese Rodriguez Ruiz may well be that man, but if they really are to kick on from last season, PSG fans will be hoping there are more to come.
Les Gones will be hoping for a repeat of their 2009/10 season when they eventually went out to Bayern in the semi-finals. If the bookies’ odds are anything to go by, it seems unlikely they will be able to, but stranger things have certainly happened. Lyon automatically qualified for the group stages of the competition thanks to their second successive season finishing behind PSG (on goal difference from Monaco, 31 points behind PSG).
The realistic aim of Bruno Génésio’s team will be to at least get out of the first group stage. If they are to do that, they need to improve significantly on last year, at the same time hoping they are lucky with the draw. Despite being in a relatively easy group last season, they found it tough going, drawing the opening tie away to Gent, before losing the remaining fixtures apart from the final dead rubber against Valencia.
They have lost Umtiti to Barcelona, replacing him with young Argentinian Emanuel Mammana in what looks (on paper anyway) to be a like-for-like replacement. If they are to progress, it is crucial they are able to hold onto Alexandre Lacazette, with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal already reported to have made a bid for the French star.
If they are to sell him, then they will need to spend quickly and wisely, or not only will they more than likely struggle to get out of the group stages, they could well lose their tenuous grip on second position in the league.
The team from the principality are having to do it the hard – and long – way if they are to reach the group stages. After being dealt a tough draw against Turkish Fenerbahce, they did well to progress, and can take heart from their home performance, which guarantees them at least a spot in the Europa League. It is the Champions League where they and everyone else wants to be however, and football being what it is nowadays, all French football fans will have an eye on seeing how they progress, with the national teams’ coefficient at stake as well.
Even if Monaco are to avoid going out in the qualifying stages, the days of semi-final and final appearances ( 1994/95, 1997/98 and 2003/04 respectively) seem a long way away at present. Much is down to what happens in the remainder of the transfer window, who they can hang on to, who they can bring in to replace/strengthen. They also need Silva to play. And play well. Like Lyon, they need the dice to roll in their favour in terms of the draw and then find the fighting spirit they displayed against the Turks, and who knows, with a favourable headwind they could make it a triumvirate of French representatives in the second group stages.
As alluded to, as well as for the fans of each individual team who will be rooting for victories and progression, it is vital for Ligue 1 and French Football as a whole that all three teams do well. Racking up coefficient points may not be the motivation the coaches will leave ringing in the players’ ears as they run out onto the pitch but they are vital.
If Ligue 1 is to make the next step, and at the very least not be caught by the national leagues breathing down their neck, then it requires all three of PSG, Lyon and Monaco to bring home the proverbial bacon over the next ten months.