As nouveau riche Monaco splash the cash, France's best-supported club have been more prudent to top the league, writes Ian Hawkey.
Prudent Marseille stretch to the limit to compete with Monaco
When Arsene Wenger returns to his North London home tomorrow night, after having guided the Arsenal he has managed for nearly 16 years through a neighbourhood collision with Spurs, he will turn his attention to another "derby", a fixture that once loomed large in his working life.
"I follow French football closely," he said ahead of the first Ligue 1 meeting in two years between Olympique Marseille and Monaco, "and I see it has become a hard league to win."
The hierarchy has altered considerably, too, since Wenger coached Monaco in the early 1990s and matches against rivals from along the Cote d'Azur were often regarded with frustration and suspicion.
The Marseille who frequently finished on top of the table in that period were later found guilty of match-fixing; Wenger used to have his dark fears about how they operated.
Times change. Now it is Marseille who complain that Monaco have a head start - albeit a legal one - over the rest because, residing in a tax haven, they have none of the financial overheads borne by the other clubs in France's top flight.
Now that they enjoy the generous patronage of a Russian billionaire, Dmitri Rybolovlev, Monaco are thought to be even more unfairly spoilt.
Rybolovlev has, like the Qatari investors in Paris Saint-Germain, rewritten the rules of French football, Wenger points out. "He can buy Falcao, who is 26, for €60 million [Dh291.7m] and the capacity of Monaco's stadium is only 17,000."
Balancing the books is for later. Monaco's plan is for a quick ascent and a top-three berth that would put them back in the Champions League after a long absence.
Rybolovlev's fortune has already hauled the club up from Ligue 2, to where they were relegated in 2011, and made them the highest spenders in France during this transfer window. Yesterday, they were closing a deal to take on, from Sevilla, the France Under 21 midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia, and carry their outlay on fees - this summer alone - to over €150m.
Kondogbia's release clause was set at €20m, which is just about the entire sum Marseille, France's best-supported club, have spent on reinforcements since the window opened. Yet it is Marseille who own the only 100 per cent record in Ligue 1 after three fixtures of the season, and who lead Monaco, in second place, by two points.
Wenger will pay even closer attention to the summit of French football now that he knows Arsenal begin the group phase of the Champions League with a trip to Marseille's Velodrome in two and a half weeks' time.
He almost seems pleased that the club who were once his nemeses are enjoying success on the basis of limited spending and stability of team selection. "Elie Baup, the coach, has done a very good job after a difficult period," Wenger said.
Baup, in his second season at Marseille, acknowledges that the financial constraints under which he works - and the size of the task presented him in Europe, with Borussia Dortmund and Napoli the other Group F opponents - put a ceiling on ambitions for the campaign.
But PSG, Monaco and the imminent visitors from London, Germany and Italy, will know Marseille are a hard side to beat. The 1-0 win became a recurring trait of Baup's first campaign - in which Marseille were scarcely ever out of the top three, and finished as runners-up to PSG - and they have conceded only one goal so far this term.
Part of the fascination around tomorrow's Mediterranean derby is how the rearguard marshalled by the Marseille captain and goalkeeper Steve Mandanda deals with the potent Falcao and with his rapidly emerging strike partner Emmanuel Riviere, the young Frenchman who has four goals from three outings.
Riviere, 23, will over the next month have an idea how far and how rapidly wealth can propel Monaco's expensive, but rapidly assembled team.
Their next away game, after the journey along the coast, is to the French capital, and PSG, the only domestic opponents whose budget rivals that of Monaco.
Evian Thonon v Lyon 4pm
PSG v Guingamp 7pm
Sochaux v AC Ajaccio 10pm
Rennes v Lille 10pm
Reims v Nantes 10pm
Bastia v Toulouse 10pm
Lorient v Valenciennes 10pm
St Etienne v Bordeaux 4pm
Nice v Montpellier 7pm
Marseille v Monaco 11pm
Ligue 1 table
Team P W D L GD P
Marseille 3 3 0 0 5 9 Monaco 3 2 1 0 5 7
Lyon 3 2 0 1 5 6 Rennes 3 2 0 1 1 6
Reims 3 2 0 1 1 6 Lille 3 2 0 1 1 6
St Etienne 3 2 0 1 1 6 PSG 3 1 2 0 1 5
Bordeaux 3 1 1 1 -1 4 Montpellier 3 1 1 1 -2 4
Nice 3 1 1 1 -3 4 Nantes 3 1 0 2 0 3
Valenciennes 3 1 0 2 0 3 Guingamp 3 1 0 2 -1 3
Bastia 3 1 0 2 -1 3 Lorient 3 1 0 2 -2 3
AC Ajaccio 3 0 2 1 -1 2 Toulouse 3 0 2 1 -3 2
Sochaux 3 0 1 2 -3 1 Evian Thonon 3 0 1 2 -3 1