5 Storylines for the Opening Ligue 1 Matches of 2014

Nicholas McGeeContributor IJanuary 9, 2014

5 Storylines for the Opening Ligue 1 Matches of 2014

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    Ligue 1 returned to action on Wednesday as Saint-Etienne beat Evian 1-0, but a full calendar of fixtures take place for the first time in 2014 on Friday with the title race, battle for European places and fight against relegation all finely poised ahead of the second half of the season.

    Paris Saint-Germain are the clear favourites at the top of the table, but Laurent Blanc's men are being eagerly pursued by big-spending Monaco and Rene Girard's Lille.

    Meanwhile, Bordeaux, Saint-Etienne, Marseille, Nantes and Reims are all in contention for a place in Europe.

    At the bottom, Ajaccio look doomed, but there is still hope of survival for Sochaux and Valenciennes, with Montpellier nervously looking over their shoulders.

    A number of this weekend's fixtures could have a large bearing on the battles at both the top and bottom of the table. Here are five storylines for the opening Ligue 1 matches of 2014.

Montpellier v Monaco: Can Falcao Recapture His Form?

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    Monaco have made a strong start to life in Ligue 1 following their promotion last season. They sit only three points behind Paris Saint-Germain in the title race.

    Still, the form of star signing of Radamel Falcao has been somewhat of a disappointment so far this season. The Colombian has scored only nine league goals, although he did find the net in Monaco's 3-2 win over third-tier side Vannes in the Coupe de France last weekend.

    Now Falcao and Monaco will look to build on that performance at the Stade de la Mosson, where the principality club face a Montpellier side in dreadful form.

    Rolland Courbis' men are without a win in 10 league games, but the Montpellier boss will hope that on-loan Milan striker M'Baye Niang can help them pull away from the bottom.

    Niang's impact is unlikely to come against Monaco, though, and Friday's fixture should present Monaco and Falcao with an opportunity to boost their morale against a side that have won just twice all season.

Ajaccio v PSG: Blanc's Men out to End Drought Against Corsicans

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    PSG have been utterly dominant throughout the past two years, sweeping aside almost everyone in their path.

    However, one team Laurent Blanc's men have struggled to overcome is perhaps the most unlikely one: bottom side Ajaccio.

    Indeed, Ajaccio have held PSG to a draw in each of their last three meetings, the latest coming in a 1-1 draw in the Parc des Princes in August. Edinson Cavani scored a spectacular equaliser for PSG in that game, the Uruguay international cancelling out Benoit Pedretti's curling effort.

    However, that was back when the season was very much in its infancy. Now Blanc's side appear in unbeatable form and were effortless in cruising past Ligue 2 Brest 5-2 in the Coupe de France on Wednesday.

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored an impressive hat-trick in that game to take his tally for the season to 26, a total the Swede could easily add to against an Ajaccio side that has one win to their name in 2013-14.

Bordeaux v Toulouse: Hoarau Looking to Make an Impact in the Garonne Derby

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    Bordeaux are in excellent form under Francis Gillot and head into the second half of the season in fourth place.

    The Aquitaine club made a move hardly indicative of recent years early in the transfer window, bolstering their ranks by signing former PSG striker Guillaume Hoarau from Chinese side Dalian Aerbin.

    Hoarau could be thrown straight into the fire of the Derby de la Garonne on Saturday, a match for which Bordeaux will undoubtedly be favourites.

    Toulouse—11th in Ligue 1—are in the midst of another average season, although the atmosphere of a rivalry game could well provide Alain Casanova's men with some much-needed spark.

    Still, Bordeaux are unbeaten in their last four games against Toulouse, and in Hoarau the hosts possess a player who has experience of "Le Classique" between PSG and Marseille.

    Hoarau could well combine with Cheick Diabate, who is prospering as the team's main forward with seven league goals to his name.

    And if either Diabate or Hoarau are able to perform to potential, it could spell trouble for Toulouse.

Nantes v Lorient: A Battle of Brittany That Could Impact European Race

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    Brittany is one of the most fascinating and passionate football regions in France, and one that now boasts four teams in the top flight.

    Of those teams, it is Nantes that have been setting the standard this season, a situation that few could have envisaged when Michel Der Zakarian's men were beaten 2-1 by Lorient back in August.

    Since then, however, Nantes have produced some sterling performances, beating biggest rivals Rennes and the likes of Marseille and Bordeaux in what has been an extremely impressive season.

    Two consecutive defeats before the mid-season break somewhat curtailed their progress, but Nantes welcome neighbours Lorient to the Stade de la Beaujoire in a good position to fight for a place in the UEFA Europa League.

    Lorient are just two points behind seventh-placed Nantes in ninth and could mount a run at the European places themselves if Christian Gourcuff's men can maintain the momentum they possessed before the winter break.

    Such a prospect looked unimaginable when an injury-ravaged Lorient were trounced 4-0 by PSG in the pouring rain at the Parc des Princes at the beginning of November.

    However, Lorient have since gone seven league games unbeaten, a run inspired by striker Vincent Aboubakar, who has 11 league goals to his name after hitting a great run of form.

    And Aboubakar will now go head to head with Nantes' impressive forward Filip Djordjevic in a battle of two evenly matched footballing sides that can afford to set their sights high in the second half of the season.

Lille v Reims: Girard's Title Challengers Seeking Revenge Against Resolute Reims

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    Lille are only four points behind PSG in the title race, but like many teams, Rene Girard's men came unstuck in an early-season trip to Reims.

    The 2010-11 champions were beaten 2-1 by Hubert Fournier's men in August as Lille suffered at the hands of a team that is consistently strong at the Stade Auguste Delaune.

    Girard's team have since been in excellent form, and they displayed superb resolve to earn a 2-2 draw at PSG in their last match before mid-season interval.

    Lille will look to gain revenge on Reims and build on their strong result at the Parc des Princes. However, Reims should not be discounted after showing improved away form this term.

    Reims have beaten both Lyon and Marseille away from home in what has been a strong campaign from the Champagne club.

    The hosts should be favourites to take all three points, but, with Reims arguably in contention for a European spot, Lille will need to be on top form if they are to avenge the first of their three league defeats.