With the Ligue 1 season just days away from starting, and with much of the transfer garbage behind us, we can now actually examine how the Ligue 1 season could possibly play out. Two years ago we saw an influx of players into Marseille and Lyon which changed the faces of their teams. This year, a number of teams will look quite different. Luckily for French football, the net gains seemed to have outweighed the net losses.
In this series of articles, I will be looking at my predictions for teams that I think will finish 20th to 15th place. As the days count down, I will move up the ladder, with my eventually Ligue 1 winner saved for last. So, here we go.
20th – Dijon: Every year, there is always one team that is promoted that actually surprises us and perform better than expected. Last year it was Brest. Could Dijon be one of those teams that people are underestimating?
Like Arles-Avignon last year, Dijon is bringing in a bunch of players that haven’t played with each other before. But, of course, this could be the standard for Ligue 1 this year. But unlike other teams, the transfers into Dijon fail to impress, much like Arles-Avignon. Yes, there are a few good players coming in, like Abdoulaye Meite of Marseille fame. But will bringing in some of these older players really make Dijon a better team? I fail to see that being the case.
The biggest blow to Dijon is the departure of striker Sebastian Ribas, who scored 23 goals in Ligue 2 in 2010-11. Dijon was a team that had a nice balance of both offense and defense last year. But with a big part of their offense gone, it is more than likely that Dijon will have to rely on their midfield to produce more goals. Then the question is what Dijon will be able to do in the back, which is also an unknown.
Dijon is predicted to be last in many of the predictions posted around the internet, but I don’t know that many people are safe with that prediction. Nothing indicated that they will have an Arles-Avignon type of implosion that we saw this last year. But nobody is giving them much of a hope to be anything outside of the relegation zone.
19th – Ajaccio: Like with Dijon, Ajaccio is a big unknown. Going into the Ligue 2 season last year, nobody expected these two teams to be in Ligue 1 the following year. But now they are and it is anyone’s guess on how they will perform.
While Dijon’s signing really haven’t sparked anything to the debate, Ajaccio is showing that they are, slowly, trying to build a team. First, they added Ilan to the line up, formerly of Sochaux and ASSE. While adding him might sound good on paper, it can also be easily said that he isn’t the player he once was. Maybe being a team leader at Ajaccio will change that, but it seems as if his good years, even at 30, are behind him.
Another nice signing for the team is Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. Supposedly, Ochoa is a good keeper. And, contrary to popular belief, not all Americans watch Mexican soccer, so I really can’t give a report card on him as far as his club play. But knowing that Club America is one of the best clubs in Mexico, it is easy to say that Ochoa has an impressive resume, which includes 45 caps for the Mexican National Team.
Ochoa and Ilan don’t seem like players that would make a move to a team purely for money reasons. It seems as if they feel something could possibly happen at Ajaccio. They will still be fighting to keep out of the relegation zone, but their chances are better than Dijon.
18th – Nice: Could this be the year that Nice drops? Recently, they have been flirting with the relegation zone and have been lucky enough just to remain outside of it. Now, with how well other teams are improving, Nice could find themselves falling.
While Nice has been a defensive team the last few years, now they will even have to rely more on their defense with the departure of Danijel Ljuboja and Chaouki Ben Saada. The absence of those two combined with losing Loic Remy last year has made Nice an offensive wasteland. They could replace Toulouse as the most defensive team in Ligue 1.
Nevertheless, more pressure will be put on goalkeeper David Ospina to perform. First of all, many expect Ospina to leave after this season. His performance this season could determine if he moves to a team like Lille or Huddersfield Town. He already is starting to get the reputation of being injury prone. And if he doesn’t perform this year, his likelihood of signing with a top-notch team next year could be in jeopardy. In addition, young Peruvian goalkeeper Raúl Fernández Valverde is waiting.
The club did try to help the defense a little by adding Luciano Fabián Monzón from Boca Juniors. But still, the life or death of Nice will be squarely on the shoulders of Ospina. He does well, they survive. If not, they sink. That is what happens when you have a team with very few options in the way of offense.
17th – Caen – There are always teams like Dijon and Arles-Avignon that people think are going to drop no matter what. On the flip-side, there are teams that are promoted from Ligue 2 that are expected to be contenders right away. This year, it is Evian. Last year, it was Caen. But even with a good Ligue 2 finish in 2009, they failed to impress in their first year back in Ligue 1, even with impressive matches against Lyon and Marseille to start the season.
Like with many teams that are finding themselves on the bottom of this list, Caen became losers in the transfer market, and their departures outweighed their arrivals. First, Youssef El-Arabi, easily one of the biggest surprises of last year with 17 goals, is now gone. Second, Yohan Mollo has been returned to Monaco after being loaned by The Principality to Caen.
Caen’s answer to the departure of these two players has been Pierre-Alain Frau. In the last few years, we have seen that Eden Hazard at Lille can make other players look good. This could easily be said for Frau. While he did score a number of goals two years ago, there is still the question of if he is really as good as those numbers made him out to be. Instead of being in the mold of Moussa Sow, I see him more as the next Danijel Ljuboja, an older player bouncing from team to team and totally content with playing in Ligue 2 in his “twilight years”. Therefore, Frau isn’t a good replacement up front.
Yes, Caen has been able to hold on to a few solid players. Nicolas Seube, Benjamin Nivet, Romain Hamouma, Gregory Leca and others have stayed with the team and given them solid footing. But will it be enough?
16th – Auxerre: Captain Benoit Pedretti, gone. Ireneusz Jeleń, gone. Valter Birsa, gone. Frederic Sammaritano, gone. Jean-Pascal Mignot, gone. Julien Quercia, gone.
Auxerre had troubles last year with these players on the team (though some of them were injured for many games), how will they do with their departure? I think most people will agree that Auxerre’s 3rd place finish two years ago was basically luck, but they might not be as lucky this year to avoid the relegation zone.
Much like what is happening in Nice, the defense will have to be strong at Auxerre. Auxerre has been known to be a defensive team with some good offensive support. But the players that they brought in to replace Jelen, Pedretti and Birsa won’t match the talent level of the departing players. Issam Jemaa is decent, but not a Jelen by any stretch of the imagination.
This means that Auxerre’s offense will have to rely on some very unreliable players. Last year, I was expecting a lot from Anthony Le Tallec. But to say he was only a disappointment would be an understatement. But with the departures, Le Tallec will have to step it up. Dennis Oliech will also have to perform better. Granted, he did have a good game here and there for Auxerre last year. But this year he will have to perform well on a consistent basis, which he was failed to do in what could be considered a failed Ligue 1 career.
Luckily for Auxerre, their defense stayed in tact. Olivier Sorin, one of the most underrated keepers in world football, is in net. Cedric Hengbart, Stephane Grichting, Adama Coulibaly and newcomer Willy Boly will help Auxerre when it comes to having a solid defense. But will it be enough to keep them out of the relegation zone?
And, in addition to the players, Jean Fernandez is no longer with the team. How will Laurent Fournier do? That is also a big unknown.
In order to win games, teams must score, and that will be the biggest problem for Auxerre in 2011-12.
15th – Lorient: Another team that saw mass departure was Lorient. The year before, Lorient took a big hit when Laurent Koscielny and Sylvain Marchal left. But with Kevin Gameiro, Morgan Amalfitano and Jeremy Morel gone, how will Lorient fair?
Unlike the other teams mentioned, Lorient have been able to add a few decent players. They were able to take advantage of Monaco’s relegation and sign Mathieu Coutadeur. They also signed Jérémie Aliadière, a French striker who will be playing professional football in France for the first time in his career. Julien Quercia also joined Lorient. But other than that, the additions to Lorient have far been overshadowed by the departures.
As with Auxerre, this means that the defense will be required to do more. Fabien Audard continues to be a solid goalkeeper, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t remain that way. Maxime Baca remains with the team as well as Bruno Ecuele Manga and Arnaud Le Lan, which gives Lorient an “average” defense.
But while their defense might not be as good as Auxerre’s, the offense is where the Brittany side gets the nod. Yes, Gameiro and Amalfitano are gone, but Kevin Monney-Paquet, Sigamary Diarra and Lynel Kitambala are better options up front compared to what Auxerre has. And, honestly, the departure of Gameiro might be exactly what these players need to be put in the spotlight a little bit more.
Lorient has a balanced team. Unfortunately, they are a pretty average team. While they do have the chance at being higher in the standings, the losses in the off-season will hurt them more than help.