With the new Ligue 1 season almost upon us, the biggest point of debate surrounding French football at this time is whether the title race will revolve around Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco or not.
That question should perhaps be whether it will involve Claudio Ranieri’s side at all.
Les Monegasques have strengthened impressively over the summer since sealing the Ligue 2 title last year, and new arrivals Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho are star names in Le Championnat. But as is so often the case, star names can’t or won’t necessarily buy you the title.
Not immediately, at least.
Just look at PSG. It took two years of solid investment in top-quality talent to finally secure the Ligue 1 title last season after narrowly losing out to Montpellier the season before. There is no reason that Monaco cannot challenge for the French champions’ crown immediately, but logic would suggest that this season will be a period of transition for the Principality outfit.
Firstly, this is an entirely new team we are talking about. Ranieri is not just changing one or two elements from the previous season in the second tier; almost every member of the Italian’s first starting lineup is likely to be a new addition. To make such wholesale changes and still expect to win the league is ambitious to say the least.
Ligue 1 is a competition where sides with limited team chemistry, as PSG have discovered, get found out quickly no matter how much star talent they have at their disposal. ASM should have enough domestic experience in the team with Jeremy Toulalan, Eric Abidal, Emmanuel Riviere and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin to cushion the impact that French football will have on Ranieri’s new additions.
However, certain parts of the game will still come as a shock to the system. Even Toulalan and Abidal will be taken aback at first by how different the French top-flight is to when they left it.
Like PSG have done in the past, expect Monaco to trip over and fall down where you least expect them. There is no doubt that they have the ability to take an immediate title challenge to PSG, but the level of competition within Ligue 1 should not be sneered at. The capital club did so and paid the price, particularly during their first season under Qatar Sports Investments.
Antoine Kombouare was controversially dismissed with the side top of the league at the halfway point; Carlo Ancelotti came in and could not complete the mission. The Italian is arguably a higher-calibre coach than his compatriot Ranieri, and his initial struggles in France illustrate the difficulties that the Monaco coach will face in rallying a brand new side to a title tilt.
But then Les Monegasques also appear to have bought extremely well.
Given the familiarity of some of the key figures in the team, Monaco could bond faster than PSG did initially. Falcao, Rodriguez and Moutinho know each other from Porto, Abidal and Toulalan from the French national team and Ricardo Carvalho also benefits from the Portuguese connection.
There are some strong cornerstones upon which the side from the Principality can base their team chemistry and, unlike the French champions, they also have a considerable level of domestic talent within the side.
One of PSG’s biggest problems is communication.
Laurent Blanc’s starting lineup in the Trophee des Champions clash with Football Club des Girondins de Bordeaux featured six different nationalities. Ranieri’s will likely be even more diverse. Between the entire PSG group, there is no one common language. That cannot be expected of Monaco this early into the squad’s time together.
Thiago Silva captains Blanc’s side, yet he does not speak French to his teammates. Abidal will lead Monaco and will likely communicate in either French or Spanish, meaning that many of his teammates will be forced to learn to speak French.
Although there will inevitably be initial teething problems with this, Monaco will benefit long-term from their players speaking the same language. Being led by a native in Abidal who was raised at the club and is also familiar with a crucial second language, like Spanish, is massively useful.
However, those initial communication problems could be all that a familiar, if not entirely fluid, PSG side need to open up a considerable early lead in the table. If Monaco are to mount a title bid, avoiding handing their title rivals the early initiative will be key.
Are Monaco genuine title contenders?
Yes. With such an eclectic collection of talents there is no doubt it can happen, but only under certain conditions.
We have already seen from some of Les Monegasques’ recent friendlies that the team is capable of scoring plenty of goals and that there is an abundance of talent at the Stade Louis II; that bodes well.
To a large extent, those title chances depend on how PSG fare.
Ligue 1 is a league capable of breaking even the most brilliant of talents. Winning a title in a first season with a brand new team either takes the dominant influence of a consistent footballing genius like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or a concerted team effort.
Ranieri and Monaco should be targeting the latter if they feel that an immediate league victory is a distinct possibility.
But success does not come overnight, which is something that Ranieri will be fully aware of.