x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

PSG determined to stay at the top of French Ligue 1

Defending champions open with Montpellier as Zlatan Ibrahimovic is coming off a big year and will welcome Edison Cavani and new manager Carlo Ancelotti, writes Ian Hawkey.

Paris Saint Germain’s Edinson Cavani, centre, was a key addition this summer and will boost the club’s chance of a repeat league title. Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP
Paris Saint Germain’s Edinson Cavani, centre, was a key addition this summer and will boost the club’s chance of a repeat league title. Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP

France's domestic league season begins Friday night with the meeting of the last two clubs to lift the title. Sometimes, the fixture calendar throws up quirks like this, although nobody will mistake Montpellier versus Paris Saint Germain (PSG) as a joust between the two leading contenders to win le championnat in 2014.

It looks more like a face-off between two eras, with Montpellier as the representatives of an age when provincial teams with limited budgets had enough cunning and punch to have turned French football into an unusually hard league to forecast. Over the last six years, there have been six different champions of Ligue 1.

Montpellier's 2012 triumph may have ranked as a significant shock, but when Lille had won it the year before, they, too, began as outsiders. Nor were Bordeaux widely expected to triumph in 2009. Even Marseille, the best-supported club in France and table toppers at the end of 2009/10, were regaining the prize after an 18-year gap.

But PSG's wealth, swelled hugely since the club's 2011 takeover by Qatari investment, makes them overwhelming favourites to replace this sequence of shifting silverware with a phase of consolidating power. The transformation of that club continues apace. The recruitment of Edinson Cavani, at close to €65 million (Dh318.7m) from Napoli, against puts PSG at the top of the register of single spends on an individual in a transfer window.

He joined this summer, but having been involved with Uruguay at the Confederations Cup, only joined his new colleagues last week and will probably not be in the starting XI this evening.

Once he is up and running, the smooth functioning, or otherwise, of his partnership with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, will intrigue, as will the use of them by Laurent Blanc, who succeeds Carlo Ancelotti as head coach.

Ibrahimovic towered over Paris last season, his first in France, not simply for the 33 goals in league and Uefa Champions League play, but the double-figures he reached in assists.

The Swede was worth a goal-a-match to PSG, whose title was their first since the far-less-monied days of the 1990s, in a division which had earned a notoriety for being lower-scoring than most comparable European leagues.

To which alignment should Ligue 1 be compared? In the Uefa rankings, it has long hovered around the fifth-best mark, behind England, Spain, Germany and Italy, and just above Portugal.

PSG's economic might has opened up new possibilities.

They reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League last April, and will begin among the genuine dark horses for that competition in 2013/14.

But they are also aware that, having left the likes of Marseille, Olympique Lyonnais and Lille behind economically – and Montpellier a long way back – another financially muscular opponent is upon them.

Monaco, promoted from the second tier and backed by the Russian billionaire Dmitri Rybolovlev, have signposted their intentions dramatically.

The €60m fee paid by Monaco for the Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, who has joined from Atletico Madrid, makes him the second-costliest transfer anywhere in the current window. PSG versus Monaco, incidentally, is slated for the third weekend of September, and is already anticipated as France's summit fixture for the next few years.

Early French Ligue 1 fixtures

Friday
Montpellier v PSG, 10.30pm

Saturday
Bordeaux v Monaco, 11pm
Evian Thonon v Sochaux, 11pm
Lille v Lorient, 11pm
Lyon v Nice, 11pm
Nantes v Bastia, 11pm
Rennes v Reims, 11pm
Valenciennes v Toulouse, 11pm

Sunday
AC Ajaccio v St Etienne, 7pm
Guingamp v Marseille, 11pm

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