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The Ligue 1 Review – Week 2

“He stays” tweeted Gerard Piqué, smiling, his arm around Neymar. The player was “200% staying” claimed Barcelona. La Liga took the denial a step further by turning away PSG’s lawyers, €222m cheque in hand, before refusing to promptly deliver Neymar’s international clearance certificate, meaning the world’s most expensive player was forced to watch his first game as a Paris player from the Parc des Princes stands. Despite the efforts of his former teammates, club and league, Neymar is a PSG player. The fee and fanfare aside, the attitude of La Liga and co. more than anything illustrates the seismic shift in European football that the Brazilian’s gargantuan transfer represents, a watershed moment for Ligue 1. This weekend, in sleepy Guingamp, Neymar finally made his French football debut.

In the last decade a clear European footballing aristocracy has developed. A combination of often overwhelming wealth and the allure and grandeur of the continent’s great clubs has made European football’s summit close to impenetrable for other clubs. The world’s best players have exclusively populated this small clique of teams in the last 10 to 15 years and even the QSI billions behind Paris Saint-Germain have not been able to break the monopoly with limited to little success in the Champions’ League. The majority of their marquee signings have come from Serie A’s top sides, not the impregnable fortress of La Liga, the Premier League or Bayern Munich.

Considering their performances this has not been all that surprising for PSG. For much of the modern era French domestic football has not been taken as seriously as the rest of the traditional top 5 leagues, and with good reason. French teams have continually underachieved and limply exited European competitions and no side is more prone to a continental collapse than PSG. The Parisiens are the self-anointed breakers of that established order with the aim of dragging Ligue 1 back to the forefront of Europe’s footballing consciousness in the process. Up until now, they have failed.

The Neymar inspired 6-1 drubbing at the Nou Camp last season amounted to utter humiliation and thoroughly eradicated any hope engendered by the 4-0 first leg win, while the drab exit from the Champions League at Manchester City a year earlier surpassed the Barcelona whirlwind in frustration and disappointment. The Champions League last eight is all QSI’s quasi-Galactico, money throwing policy has been able to produce. However, French football beyond QSI and PSG has quietly been gathering impetus for some time and Neymar’s arrival is a sign of that burgeoning development and a pivotal moment for the league.

Guingamp’s Stade de Roudourou had been sold out for more than a week, the significance and potential spectacle of Neymar’s debut not lost on the Breton locals. This game was more than the routine Sunday evening Ligue 1 fare but Neymar doesn’t seem to feel pressure or the weight of expectation, his boyish grin has been ever present since his arrival and remained in place throughout Sunday night. Although the goalless first half was a frustrating one, Neymar’s supreme quality was routinely evident, his first touch was close to being a sublime whipped assist for Angel Di Maria. But as a dogged Guingamp probed, the Parisiens took charge. An incisive turn and run from the new man created PSG’s first, the ball eventually ricocheting into the path of Guingamp full back Jordan Ikoko who inexplicably slotted past his own keeper. A delightfully shaped Neymar through ball set Edinson Cavani free to make it two before roles were reversed for Neymar to tap home with 3 minutes to play. As PSG coasted to three points and Neymar enjoyed an excellent debut, the reasons behind Neymar’s arrival remain the central story for Ligue 1 going forward.

Despite Neymar’s diplomatic tone at his unveiling, a key factor in his reasoning behind his move to Paris, money and the motivations of his father and entourage aside, is, with little doubt, winning the Ballon D’Or. An achievement that would likely be beyond his reach at Barcelona while Lionel Messi remains “pope of the town”, as a member of the player’s team colorfully explained to RMC. Neymar needs his own side to be built around him. Whatever the financial incentive, crucially for French football, the fact that Neymar sees PSG, and by extension Ligue 1, as the place to realise this dream underlines the forward strides that French domestic football has made in the last year and is at least partly down to the exciting, youthful and competitive division that has developed over the last 18 months.

Granted, little more than a year ago, PSG won the title by an absurd 31 points but last season they were ambushed. Monaco were effervescent in usurping Paris and stealing their Ligue 1 crown, Leonardo Jardim’s charges embarrassing their rivals further in making the Champions League semi-final, Lyon managed to partially leave behind their own flakey displays on the European stage to make a Europa League semifinal while Nice staged a strong title challenge of their own sitting top at Christmas and taking 4 points from PSG over the course of the campaign.

Marseille have lurred Adil Rami, Dimitri Payet, Patrice Evra and Luis Gustavo to Ligue 1 through the investment of LA Dodgers owner Frank McCourt while Lille and Nantes have pulled off sizeable coups in naming Marcelo Bielsa and Claudio Ranieri as their respective managers. Lille’s new Spanish-born owner Gérard Lopez has bankrolled their €50m outlay this summer while Lucien Favre’s Nice and an exciting Bordeaux side have enjoyed foreign investment of their own. Ligue 1 is increasingly becoming an attractive proposition for investors and players alike, to such an extent that others are being left behind. Ligue 1 record champions, St Étienne, a regular Champions League chaser in recent campaigns, although proud to be French owned, have admitted they can no longer keep pace with the top 6 financially, a distant 8th last term proof of that assertion.

With their peers catching and even surpassing them, PSG desperately needed o hit refresh and make a statement of intent having seen their dominance wiped out so dramatically. Neymar’s arrival at just 25, with much of his prime still before him, is arguably the biggest moment in the club’s history, certainly since QSI’s arrival, and represents a victory on a number of levels. Primarily, it is the first meaningful sign that Unai Emery’s side are capable of competing with the established European aristocracy on player recruitment, tempting away one of their rivals’ prize assets against their wishes. A fact reinforced by the rebuffing of Barcelona’s pursuit of Parisian talisman, Marco Verratti.

Moreover, the deal takes PSG’s Galactico ethos to another level. Signing one of the world’s ‘top 5’ players has long been an objective of the club’s, something they have not come close to achieving before. While crucially, it is difficult to forget amongst the fanfare, this significantly strengthens Emery’s hand in the Champions League, a competition which has become a club obsession and where ultimately they will be judged by others and themselves.

The reluctance of the Spanish authorities to accept the move and their apparent disbelief at the series of events that led to one of La Liga’s biggest draws leaving Spain, is a sign that, for the first time in close to two decades, and that an outsider, albeit an obscenely rich outsider, might start to truly break European football’s monopoly. Admittedly, PSG have a long way to go both in proving they can genuinely challenge for European titles and in player recruitment with another 9 figure fee for Kylian Mbappé seemingly edging ever closer. Whatever happens between now and September 1st, they are not even currently reigning French champions and it remains to be seen if Neymar alone will be able to remedy their big game emotional frailty, but nevertheless Neymar’s arrival in Paris should be seen a watershed moment for European football.

Despite the sums involved, this is a move that says as much about the increasing relevance of Ligue 1 as it does about QSI’s bottomless pockets and perhaps La Liga, Barcelona and Gérard Pique should be reminded that, this summer, it was Neymar who called PSG.

1 | Strasbourg handily turned the tables in their home opener against Lille, displaying considerable attacking verve against Les Dogues in a 3-0 win, but Marcelo Bielsa must take some of the blame for the team’s loss. Having frozen out veterans such as Vincent Enyeama and Julian Palmieri, he has left his side with precious little Ligue 1 experience save the forward Nicolas de Préville, and when midfielder Thiago Mendes and right back Kévin Malcuit were both forced off through injury, perhaps a coincidence but nevertheless suspect given how hard the players had worked in the off-season. The Argentine then compounded matters by removing struggling left back Fodé Ballo-Touré before the interval, leaving himself without any substitutions and nearly an hour of football to play. It is arguable, after the bright cameo by reserve Rominigue Kouamé, whether Ballo-Touré should have started, but Bielsa, never one for sentiment, resolved to make the switch, a dangerous gambit against as Strasbourg side that looked emboldened by their vociferous home support. Things really came to a head, though, when the player earmarked as Enyeama’s replacement, Mike Maignan, was sent off (and could face further suspension) for throwing a ball at Benjamin Corgnet, leaving de Préville to play in goal. Bielsa has done wonders in the past with young squads, but his most recent successes have been buoyed by veterans in key roles (André-Pierre Gignac, Alaixys Romao and Steve Mandanda at Marseille, Andoni Iraola, Gaizka Toquero, Gorka Iraizoz at Athletic Club). His hegemonic nature is unlikely to change, but that could leave Lille in a situation no better than last season, especially with Oscar Garcia having Saint-Étienne purring.

2 | Purring is certainly a relative term, but for the second week in a row, Saint-Étienne ground out a 1-0 win, leaving them level on points with Lyon, Monaco, PSG and Marseille at the top of the table. Without European football to distract, the team can double down on the defensive solidity that has been their trademark of late, while also playing with more freedom going forward as a result of a restructured midfield. Youngster Assane Dioussé is a more prosaic presence than Vincent Pajot, but his inclusion as the left-sided central midfielder has allowed Bryan Dabo greater freedom in attack. Dabo was dynamism embodied at Montpellier but his first season saw him clashing with Galtier, and being dropped for Jordan Veretout and Henri Saivet; his season ended with less than 700 minutes played in the league, making him one of the season’s biggest transfer flops. Still just 25, he seems to be enjoying a new lease on life under Garcia, playing as a complete box-to-box midfielder. A consistent source of goals will still be a problem for Les Verts, but with Dabo and a similarly back-in-favour Oussama Tannane closer to their best, there is no reason to think this run can’t continue, even if a trip to Paris in two weeks’ time looms.

3 | Monaco were also at their bullish best against Dijon, winning 4-1 on the road, with set pieces again being key. Jemerson’s overhead kick was the pick of the bunch, but Radamel Falcao’s hat trick shouldn’t be ignored, either. Kylian Mbappé will generate the transfer rumours and attention, but the Colombian was good for just a shade over a goal every ninety minutes in the league last season, no mean feat in a team with so many weapons. The current campaign has seen him net four times in 165 minutes, topping the scoring charts with aplomb. Sunday also saw the genesis of what seems, even in its infancy, a promising partnership with former Rennes youngster Adama Diakhaby, whose pace was key to creating space for his fellow attackers, even if his own involvement was somewhat limited. Mbappé would doubtlessly be a huge miss if he does depart, but Monaco still look a good bet to challenge for the title, as Jardim seems to have El Tigre fit, focused and ready to lead this team to another strong season.

4 | While Nabil Fékir was the focus of last week’s main article, that he turned in an even better performance against Rennes shouldn’t go unnoticed. He had been good, but not great against a promoted side, and one of his two goals was from the spot; a trip to Rennes would surely offer a sterner test. The Breton side are still sorting themselves out tactically and personnel-wise, and were poor in defence, but they do offer a bustling midfield in the form of Benjamin Bourigeaud and Benjamin André. Against a young Lucas Tousart and a lightweight Sergi Darder, the hosts should have had ample control centrally, but Fékir was constantly dropping deep, pressuring the ball and both allowing Darder the chance to attack as well as subverting Rennes’ perceived advantage. His movement was also key laterally as well, frequently pulling out to either wing to allow Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traoré the space to cut inside and enhance the front four’s fluidity. Add in an inch-perfect cross for Mariano Diaz’s goal, and Fékir delivered a truly complete performance, despite not finding the back of the net himself.

A.W. and E.D.

 

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