Ligue 1's best have plenty of offer in European competition outside PSG
For most of the summer it has been all about Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, financial fair play and many other things in regard to Paris Saint-Germain. It got to a point where you could have easily forgotten that French football has much more to offer.
Not only in the domestic game, too. The French contingent in Europe this season are full of promise with Monaco alongside Unai Emery’s men in the Champions League and Marseille, Lyon and Nice in the Europa League. These are the five biggest clubs in Ligue 1 at the moment and they are approaching their respective competitions with plenty of hope.
Monaco were the darlings of the Champions League last season. People fell in love with their style of football, the resurrection of veteran striker Radamel Falcao, abundance of promising young talent in their squad and the emergence of 18-year-old prodigy Mbappe. The club from the Principality made the competition sexy last year, but there was a surprise element about their fantastic run to the semifinals which won’t be there this time around.
Still, even if they have lost almost half of their starting XI (Mbappe, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva and Tiemoue Bakayoko) this summer, other teams will fear them.
Their recruitment has been impressive in many ways with a lot of good young talent coming in (Stevan Jovetic, Youri Tielemans and Keita Balde, for example) and their Champions League group is slightly easier this season: RB Leipzig, Porto and Besiktas, compared to last year (Tottenham, Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow).
Monaco’s first match in Leipzig on Wednesday evening should be very interesting. It comes only four days after a heavy defeat away at Nice (4-0) in Ligue 1 for Monaco — their first league loss since December and their first away from home since last September (at Nice as well by the same score.) Perhaps the players were already thinking ahead to Europe, or maybe they were physically drained from the international break, but whatever the reason they need to bounce back quickly.
In the Europa League on Thursday, Marseille will hope that hosting Turkish side Konyaspor at the Stade Velodrome proves to be a turning point in their nascent season.
Having lost 6-1 at Monaco and 3-1 at home against Rennes in the last two weeks, the team look short of confidence with no game plan, no real team spirit and a manager, Rudi Garcia, who keeps making mistakes. The fans are going mad. They were sold an “OM Champions Project” by the new owner Frank McCourt when he bought the club with big promises a year ago. But at the moment, they are a joke. Even against RB Salzburg and Vitoria Guimaraes, the other two teams in their group, l’OM will have to play much better than in recent games if they have any hope of getting through.
For Lyon, this could be a special season as the Europa League final will be played at the Parc OL. Winning the competition at home would be extra special and it is the club’s main objective.
With a first game away at Cypriot side Limassol and a tough group alongside Atalanta and Everton, Lyon will have to hit the ground running. They have started the league well (three wins and two draws) despite not always playing well, Nabil Fekir is back to his best — which is not the case for Memphis Depay or Bertrand Traore yet — but collectively there is still a lot of work to be done.
For Lyon, still getting used to life without Alexandre Lacazette’s goals, the trip to Paris on Sunday will be their biggest game of the season so far and they will need to ensure they are fighting fit after a European away day.
But while Lyon are happy to be playing in the Europa League, it is not the competition Nice wanted to be involved in this year. Having qualified for the Champions League playoffs last season, Napoli proved too strong last month and they have been forced to drop down. However, unlike last season where they were not ready to play in Europe and were knocked out in the group stages of the Europa League by Schalke and Krasnodar, this time they are ready.
Nice have more depth now, between the experience of Dante, Mario Balotelli and Wesley Sneijder and the youth of Alassane Plea, Vincent Koziello and Jean-Michael Seri they have a good team.
Seri is the key player and was outstanding against Monaco. Despite his move to Barcelona falling through at the last minute, he is still giving his all for the team and Nice will be expected to get a result from their trip to Zulte-Waregem in Belgium before the group games with Lazio and Vitesse come along.
PSG may be hogging the headlines with talk of European domination, but the French league has plenty of others who can write some interesting storylines before the end of the season.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.