By Danny Wyn Griffith
When asked about great European cities, Paris might spring to the forefront of your mind. This is a city which oozes elegance with architecture that resembles an outdoor museum. Think of a city with enough fine wine to get the whole world drunk. A city that counts itself amongst the world leaders in fashion and now also finds itself on the front line of world football. Paris Saint-Germain have gone from Ligue 1 underperformers to European football tyrants in the space of a decade. They now bully where once they were bullied, and this has caused the rest of the league to up their game and turned the French domestic scene into quite the spectacle.
PSG have spent like no other side in Ligue 1 history this summer, and the pressure is firmly on Unai Emery to bounce back from an average first season in charge. Monaco are reigning champions, but are much-changed compared to the outfit that romped to success last term and their chances might depend on keeping Radamel Falcao clear of any fitness issues. Olympique Lyonnais go about their business in a quieter sense nowadays and their chances hinge on how they react to losing talisman, Alexandre Lacazette. Olympique Marseille now have a player in Dimitri Payet and owner in Frank McCourt that is edging towards the boisterous level demanded by their renowned fans. OGC Nice were impressive in their third placed finish last term and Lucien Favre’s men will hope to continue along the recent upward curve. It’s hard to forget Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille – despite sitting in the relegation zone seven games in – who will undoubtedly provide excitement at various points during the season, whether on the pitch, touchline or during the post-match press conference. And lastly, former Leicester City miracle-man, Claudio Ranieri, finds himself with the unenviable task of leading Nantes to glory.
PSG’s spending spree and rapid rise would never have been possible were it not for some very deep pockets. Qatar Sports Investments – established in 2005 by son of the Emir and heir to the Qatari throne, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani – bought a 70% stake in the club on 30 June 2011. From that point onwards they’ve been on a fast-track to the pinnacle of European football having been led to four straight Ligue 1 titles firstly by Carlo Ancceloti, and then Laurent Blanc, as manager along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic as talisman. Their rise caused various calls of foul play and the term ‘financial doping’ is regularly associated with the team – and rightly so, although that story remains for another day. However, the noise recently reached peak volume as they paid Barcelona the princely world record sum of €222m for their Brazilian superstar, Neymar Jr.
Controversy has never been far behind Neymar. Known to be highly influenced by his father, Neymar Sr, and agent, Wagner Ribeiro, his previous move from Santos to Barcelona ended up costing double the originally reported fee of €57m. A €40m signing on fee was even included in the deal – a crucial term his father is known to have demanded. You can only imagine the eye-watering figures behind this summer’s record-breaking transfer. It surely surpasses €222m.
The world record price is only half the story. The way PSG and Neymar’s entourage went about the transfer was like no other. As if pinching Neymar from Catalonia with calls of financial doping left in their trail wasn’t enough, they decided to rub Barcelona’s noses in it. One of European football’s elite had been ruffled, and PSG and Neymar made sure everyone knew about.
Nevertheless, no matter what your cost and what talent you might possess, the importance of gelling with your new teammates cannot be underplayed. First flutters of potential settling-in issues appeared as PSG faced Lyon. On two different occasions commotion commenced between Neymar and Edinson Cavani over set piece duties. How this plays out over the course of the season will be an interesting sub-plot to the Ligue 1 journey.
Neymar’s new side finished in second place during the 2016/17 Ligue 1, with PSG losing out to a vibrant Monaco side who were deservedly praised for their performances at domestic and European level. Yet, you attract attention by showcasing your best talent to such a wide-casting audience.
Leonardo Jardim’s side have since gone on to lose key players throughout their first XI and the youthful outfit which attracted such adulation has since been ripped apart. Benjamin Mendy (£50m) and Bernardo Silva (£45m) left for Manchester City, whilst Tiemoué Bakayoko (£36m) filled the void left by Nemanja Matić at Chelsea. Worse was yet on the horizon with last season’s breakthrough star, Kylian Mbappé, highly courted throughout the summer by rivals PSG, Real Madrid and Manchester City. And to compound matters, Monaco finally succumbed to PSG’s wild wooing of their prodigious talent on the eve of the transfer window’s closure. The agreement is for an initial loan period with an option to buy next summer, with PSG seemingly weary of overstepping UEFA’s financial fair play line – although, it’s plainly apparent the mark was crossed long before this transfer.
Paris-born Mbappé’s move back home was the icing on the cake for what was a highly inflated market following the world record Neymar move. Ever since Paul Pogba moved from Juventus to Manchester United for £90m in the summer window of 2016, the market has gone off on a tandem and there’s seemingly no stopping it. Where once people called Pogba’s transfer fee outrageous, he currently seems reasonably cheap when compared with the fees conjured up for Danny Drinkwater (£35m from Leicester City to Chelsea), Kyle Walker (£50m from Tottenham to Manchester City) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (£40m from Arsenal to Liverpool).
We must bear in mind, however, that Monaco – like so many others – are also the subject of foreign ownership with Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev at the helm – although he did take a £390m hit during a divorce battle in 2015. His team made shrewd acquisitions during the summer to fill the voids left by their high profile departures. They moved quickly to snap up playmaker Youri Tielemans (£22.5m) from Anderlecht, Dutch defender Terence Kongolo (£13.5m) from Feyenoord and young forward Adama Diakhaby (£9m) from Stade Rennais.
Seven games into the Ligue 1 season; PSG and Monaco are separated by the point alone. Both occupy first and second place, picking up where they left off last season. Yet, one imagines that this may just be a false dawn. To keep pace with this powerful PSG side over the remainder of the season, Monaco – or any other Ligue 1 competitor that might rise to the occasion – will need inspiration like no other. Whether the wise old head of Radamel Falcao, the teen prodigy of Youri Tielemans and the tactical nous of Leonardo Jardim will be enough to give Monaco this inspiration remains to be seen.
One thing is surely for certain; Ligue 1 is in for a ride like it has never experienced before.
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