Lille defied all expectations by clinching a league and cup double last season, much to the dismay of Ligue 1’s traditional heavyweights. Rudi Garcia’s men join fellow UEFA Champions League qualifiers Marseille and Lyon among the favourites for the new campaign, but the trio will have a watchful eye on ambitious Paris Saint Germain, who have been prolific in the transfer market this summer.   

With the 2011/12 Ligue 1 season shaping up to be one of the most exciting in recent years, and with the action due to get underway tomorrow, considers the prospects of the teams challenging for success.

The defending champions
recorded a fantastic double last season, but they begin their title defence without several key members of their 2010/11 squad. Adil Rami, Gervinho and Yohan Cabaye have all left in search of success overseas, joining Valencia, Arsenal and Newcastle respectively. Keen to ensure continuity and stability, coach Rudi Garci has brought in experienced campaigners such as Marko Basa, Laurent Bonnart and Benoit Pedretti. The trio have UEFA Champions League experience, and should blend nicely into the existing squad.

French international Dimitri Payet joins the champions from St Etienne having scored 13 goals for Les Verts last term, and Garcia’s Barcelona-esque 4-3-3 system should give him plenty of opportunity to shine. Lille will be aware of the challenge ahead if they are to defend their crown, but they go into the new season with confidence, and no doubt buoyed by the prospect of moving into their brand-new stadium at the end of this campaign.    

The contenders
After failing to follow up their 2009/10 title triumph last term, Marseille manager Didier Deschamps opted to release a number of players who were coming to the end of their contracts. Gabriel Heinze left to join Roma, Taye Taiwo has signed for fellow Serie A outfit AC Milan, and Vitorino Hilton is now at Montpellier. 

Deschamps has brought in the likes of Amalfitano and Gennaro Bracigliano on free transfers, strengthened his defensive options by signing Alou Diarra, Jeremy Morel and Nicolas Nkoulou, and will be hoping that Argentinian midfielder Lucho Gonzalez decides to prolong his stay at the club. Marseille already have one piece of early-season silverware to their name, thanks to a thrilling 5-4 victory over Lille in the Trophee des Champions.  

Lyon begin life after Claude Puel with a renewed focus on youth talent, after a number of disappointing experiences in the transfer market last season. Remi Garde is the new man in charge, but he takes over a side with solid foundations and a strong existing squad of players. Garde has a long association with the club and still has the luxury of being able to call upon Argentinian forward Lisandro Lopez, who scored 17 goals in 24 matches for Les Gones last season.

Paris Saint Germain are also entering a new era under owners Qatar Sports Investments, who have already funded €80m of signings this summer. Former Brazil and PSG player Leonardo has been given the task of rebuilding a competitive squad, and he has so far secured the services of a dozen big-name players. Argentinian playmaker Javier Pastore is the latest player understood to be on the verge of sealing a move to the French capital. The pressure will be on manager Antoine Koumbouare to get his new talents to settle quickly and satisfy the heightened expectations at the Parc des Princes.  

The outsiders
Behind the main contenders is a highly competitive field that usually produces at least one surprise package each year. Lorient and Sochaux are worthy of a special mention as two sides who play attractive football and manage to retain their key players year after year. Rennes have found themselves in the upper reaches of the table several times in recent years, before ultimately fading towards the end of the season. 

Saint Etienne, meanwhile, continue to dream of rediscovering the glory days of the past. Finally, Bordeaux – another side waiting to move into a new stadium – have decided to give their team an overhaul in their quest for success. Francis Gillot is the man charged with the task of winning back the Girondins’ disenchanted fans after a disappointing campaign last season.

Star signings
PSG have been the dominant force in the French transfer market this summer, having signed Jeremy Menez (Roma), Mohamed Sissoko (Juventus), Salvatore Sirigu (Palermo), Blaise Matuidi (St Etienne), Kevin Gameiro (Lorient) and Nicolas Douchez (Rennes) to date. The arrival of Javier Pastore from Palermo also seems imminent. Their hectic buying does not reflect reality for most French sides, however, who often find themselves losing star players to foreign clubs rather than bringing them in the opposite direction.

Nonetheless, a number of intriguing transfers have been completed this summer, with flamboyant goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s move to Ajaccio one of the most eye-catching deals. Several French players have also returned to Ligue 1 after spells overseas. Jonathan Zebina has joined Brest, Sidney Govou has signed for Evian and Steed Malbranque is now at St Etienne, as is Florent Sinama-Pongolle, who has joined on loan from Portuguese outfit Sporting Lisbon.  

Players to watch
Aside from the big names mentioned earlier, all eyes will once again be on Lille’s Belgian star Eden Hazard, who is considered by many to be the best player in Ligue 1. Yoann Gourcuff will also be under the spotlight as he looks to regain confidence and recapture his best form, while Marseille’s fans will be hoping for more strong displays from Jordan and Andre Ayew, sons of Ghana great Abedi Pele.

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