Monaco open the new Ligue 1 season on Friday looking to re-establish themselves as a force in France, while opponents Lyon try to maintain their status despite the loss of star player Nabil Fekir.
With Paris Saint-Germain strengthening their squad and Neymar staying put for now, there is little doubt about the destination of the title before a ball has even been kicked, but 2017 champions Monaco are among a small group of clubs hoping to cling onto the reigning champions’ coattails.
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They are trying to bounce back from a dreadful last campaign that saw them avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth, but they are waiting on Radamel Falcao’s decision on whether he wants to stay in the principality.
The Colombian has a year left on his current contract and is reportedly pushing Monaco for a new three-year deal, with the club offering the 33-year-old a one-year extension.
“I want him to stay. Everyone knows that I like the player. He’s one of the highest quality players we have, he’s a professional at 200 percent,” coach Leonardo Jardim said on Wednesday.
The Portuguese, who returned in January after being temporarily replaced by Thierry Henry in October, is unconvinced that the current team, which could also end up being without Sevilla target Rony Lopes, is capable of making a charge for Europe.
“The team looks at the same level as last season”, was his scathing assessment, adding that his side is already “lacking solutions up front” ahead of Falcao’s potential departure.
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Lyon meanwhile will make their debut under new coach Sylvinho, who was hand-picked by club legend and sporting director Juninho and has been set a minimum target of replicating last season’s top-three finish.
That could be complicated by the departures of captain Fekir to Real Betis for the low reported price of 19.75 million euros ($22.1 million) plus 10 million euros of add-ons, Tanguy Ndombele to Tottenham Hotspur and Ferland Mendy to Real Madrid.
However they are helped by the other clubs in the chasing pack, Lille and Marseille, both going through busy summers.
New Marseille coach Andre Villas-Boas is confident that his side can also bounce back from a poor 2018-19, which saw the southern giants finish outside the European places amid fierce fan protests and the resignation of Rudi Garcia, ahead of their opener against Reims.
They have brought in defender Alvaro Gonzalez and Argentine international striker Dario Benedetto, with Mario Balotelli released, and Villas-Boas revealed on Thursday that he believes winger Florian Thauvin will stay on the Mediterranean coast.
“Flo is happy to stay, and that’s important for us, with a decisive player like him. We have very big ambitions this year, we have to keep our best players and Flo is part of that group,” he told reporters.
“We have quality and if we can stay with this group, without further sales, we can finish on the podium (top three, Champions League qualification), which is our main objective.”
Lille, who finished 16 points behind PSG in second last season and kick off against Nantes on Sunday, have lost one of France’s best players in Nicolas Pepe and Thiago Mendes, who joined direct rivals Lyon.
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With all of PSG’s traditional rivals in a state of flux, there is room for any one of them to make a play for the top three, although Thomas Tuchel’s side look out of reach for the rest.
“What makes the difference is organisation, the structure of the team,” said Villas-Boas.
“But in France you can be as organised as you like, but then you have (Kylian) Mbappe doing his thing…”
Ligue 1 fixtures this weekend (all times GMT)
Monaco v Lyon (1845)
Marseille v Reims (1530), Angers v Bordeaux, Brest v Toulouse, Dijon v Saint-Etienne, Montpellier v Rennes, Nice v Amiens (1800)
Lille v Nantes (1300), Strasbourg v Metz (1500), Paris Saint-Germain v Nimes (1900)