With Lyon finally knocked off their lofty perch by Laurent Blanc’s fantastically well drilled Bordeaux side last season, there is a feeling that this season’s Ligue Un title race might just be the most open in years.
With Claude Puel’s side looking to regain the crown they had held in a vice-like grip for seven seasons in a row, Blanc’s men will have their work cut out to retain their title, and with traditional powerhouses Marseille & Paris Saint-Germain looking to continue the excellent progress made last season under new coaches Didier Deschamps & Antoine Kombouaré respectively, not to mention the impressive underdogs of Lille & Toulouse lurking, French football has lot going for it at the moment. If only Raymond Domenech knew.
1. Lisandro López (Lyon)
Lyon fans could have been forgiven for despairing this summer. After all, they had just witnessed their side’s failure to clinch the Ligue Un title for the first time since 2002, and then had to look on in horror as first inspirational Brazilian Juninho, and then home-grown superstar Karim Benzema, left the club nursing a sizeable void in its playing staff.
But despite Benzema’s goals, and Juninho’s all-round class, there is reason to be cheerful at the summer business undertaken by manager Claude Puel & chairman Jean-Michel Aulas. Exciting left back Aly Cissokho (see #10) will bring the thrust and incision that Italian Fabio Grosso has failed to, and Puel has raided former club for Brazilian attacking midfielder Michel Bastos at an €18m outlay, as well as snaring French international forward Bafétimbi Gomis from Saint-Étienne. Perhaps the most exciting acquisition however, is of Porto star Lisandro López.
Lisandro is a forward of genuine European class, having spent four hugely successful years at Porto, scoring 63 goals in 143 games. Add to that a Golden Boot success in 2008, and a Player of the Year award in the same campaign, and you can see why Puel is not too disheartened at the departure of Benzema. Lisandro predominantly plays off the shoulder of the last defender, but also works the flanks superbly and can finish off either foot. His performances in the Champions League in recent years have dispelled any doubts as top his pedigree at the top level.
2. Lucho González (Marseille)
And whilst Lyon have captured the goals from Porto, their rivals Marseille have arguably stolen the engine of the team. At 28, Lucho González is entering the prime of his career, and has become l’OM’s record signing at an initial outlay of €18m (rising to €24 based upon appearances).
A cultured, elegant central midfield player, Lucho was part of the Argentina squad which picked up the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and has picked up 41 caps for his country. Blessed with a beautiful range of passing, a howitzer of a shot from distance, and a calm nature which transmits itself to his team-mates on the field, Lucho could well prove to be the signing of the summer, and should forge a strong midfield partnership with fellow new-boy Stéphane Mbia- strong enough in the eyes of new manager Didier Deschamps to offload club captain Lorik Cana to Sunderland for £6m anyway.
3. Yoann Gourcuff (Bordeaux)
Bordeaux’s success last season surprised most within French football, but in truth it probably shouldn’t have. After all, Lyon had been palpably stagnating for a couple of seasons, and in Laurent Blanc, les Girondins had a young coach with a clear vision and style of play.
Key to that style of play was this man, Yoann Gourcuff. Gourcuff has long suffered the burden of being tagged “The New Zinedine Zidane” after bursting onto the scene alongside fellow youngsters Olivier Monterrubio & Kim Källström at Rennes in 2003, but after a short and unhappy stint as Kaká’s deputy at Milan, the 23 year old has matured into a player who finally looks capable of reaching the heights predicted for him. Accordingly, Bordeaux were eager to turn his loan deal into a €15m permanent almost as soon as the Ligue Un title had been secured.
Blessed with a grace and poise that few players possess, Gourcuff moves effortlessly around the pitch like a certain other Frenchman with Girondins pedigree, and his long range finishing helped him pick up a total of 12 goals last season, with his creativity leading to countless other assists. It was enough to secure him the Ligue Un Player of the Year award, and propel him firmly back into French boss Raymond Domenech’s plans. If Gourcuff can repeat his performance of last season, FCGB will be there or thereabouts come the end of the season.
4. Grégory Coupet (PSG)
Paris Saint-Germain may have missed out on European qualification last season (a late collapse saw them finish 6th on goal difference having looked useful for a Champions League spot as late in the season as April), but undoubtedly there were signs of progress. Key to this progress has been an influx of stars thought past their best by other clubs, but utilised superbly in the capital. Claude Makélélé (36) captains with distinction a side that also features veterans Ludovic Giuly (33) & Jérôme Rothen (31).
Now add to that list French international keeper Grégory Coupet (36). Coupet has signed to replace the Lille-bound Mickaël Landreau, after an unhappy spell in Spain with Atlético Madrid, which saw him make just eleven appearances. The former Lyon stopper was France’s first choice at Euro 2008, and though he has been usurped by Marseille’s Steve Mandanda & Lyon’s Hugo Lloris of late, his influence and ability will add plenty to a developing side, and new PSG boss Antoine Kombouaré may well have pulled off a coup in bringing the seven times French champion to the capital.
5. Fernando Morientes (Marseille)
I remember the delight I felt when my club- Liverpool- signed Fernando Morientes. Having lost Michael Owen and endured Milan Baroš, Liverpool finally had a striker of proven pedigree, a finisher with the all-round game to propel the club up the league table.
Alas it never really worked out for Morientes at Anfield, the reasons for which are varied and largely unclear, but following a moderately successful (a goal every three games in a team which is built around David Villa is not as bad as it sounds) stint at Valencia, the Spaniard is ready for his second spell in France.
If he can match his first- he led the line as Monaco reached the Champions League final in 2004- then Marseille will be laughing. There is no question that his finishing ability remains as sharp as ever, and his physicality will be welcomed at Stade Velodrome. And whilst he may not be the class act of his Zaragoza/Madrid days, when he regularly netted 15-20 goals a season, his unselfish nature in a bit-part role could well bring the best out of players such as Mamadou Niang & Brandão.
6. Gabriel Heinze (Marseille)
And another player returning for a second crack at the French league will be joining Morientes on the South coast. Gabriel Heinze spent three distinguished years with l’OM’s fierce rivals Paris Saint-Germain between 2001 and 2004, leading them to the 2004 French Cup, so will need a good start to his Marseille career in order to win over the Velodrome faithful.
At 31, Heinze has seen his career go from the highs (La Liga success in his first season at Real Madrid) to the lows (form poor enough to prompt Spanish football writer Sid Lowe to brand him “an ex footballer” earlier this year) in a short space of time. A move this summer was inevitable, and at Marseille he may just have found the right club- enough pressure to keep him motivated, European football, and a club which appreciates its players rather than castigating them.
7. Junichi Inamoto (Rennes)
Once upon a time, Junichi Inamoto was set to take the Premier League by storm. Now he is hoping to succeed in France where he failed in England, having swapped Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt for Stade-Rennais.
At Arsenal he failed to crack the code of a midfield bossed by Patrick Vieira, Edu & Gilberto Silva, at Fulham his time was disrupted by a fractured tibia sustained playing for Japan, whilst at West Brom his problem was more form-based. He has rebuilt his career, and reputation, to a certain extent during subsequent spells with Galatasaray & Frankfurt, and now boasts 71 caps for his country, but at 29 there is a feeling that this move to Rennes represents his last shot at a major European league, and his last chance to start showing the potential that prompted Arsène Wenger to splash out £3.5m on him eight years ago.
8. Jaroslav Plašil (Bordeaux)
Returnees seem to be the flavour of the month this summer in France, and Bordeaux have captured another in the Czech international who was part of Monaco’s 2004 run to the Champions League final, and who performed with distinction for his country at Euro 2008.
Plašil is a left sided midfielder who brings shooting prowess and versatility to any side. He spent two successful seasons in Spain with Osasuna after leaving Monaco in 2007, and is now back in Ligue Un with Laurent Blanc’s Champions having signed for an undisclosed fee on a four-year deal.
9. Gelson Fernandes (Saint Etienne)
Upon signing the young Swiss international for Manchester City in 2007, Sven-Göran Eriksson described Gelson Fernandes as “the best young talent in Switzerland”. City’s subsequent financial windfall, and the quest for self-improvement which followed, meant that his talent was marginalised in his two seasons at Eastlands, but still there were glimpses of the talent he possessed.
Now 22, the Cape Verde born midfielder is established as a regular for his national team, and a move to Saint-Étienne will give him much needed first team football as he looks to build on his promise. Energetic, quick and deceptively strong, Gelson is likely to either complement or replace Blaise Matuidi in the Saint-Étienne engine room, and brings decent experience picked up in his time in England.
10. Aly Cissokho (Lyon)
Aly Cissokho had looked set to step into the sizeable boots vacated by Italian legend Paolo Maldini at AC Milan this summer, until medical staff at Milan were spooked by a dental condition that, they felt, could indicate potential spinal problems in the future. The 21 year old was sent back to Porto, but two weeks later had secured a move to Lyon for €15m, signing a five-year deal. Not bad for someone who had made just fifteen appearances for the Portuguese Champions.
Cissokho impressed hugely last year in a Porto side which pushed Manchester United hard in the Champions League, the young Frenchman catching the eye with his strong marauding runs from left back and his energetic covering of ground. With Fabio Grosso reportedly unhappy and seeking a move back to Italy, Cissokho will likely begin the season as Lyon’s first choice at left back, and at 21 he represents one for the future and present.