1) Fans coming back to stadiums
Although Ligue 1 was the only leading European league to not complete its season following the Covid-19 stoppage in March – seemingly due to a misunderstanding between the French government and Uefa – the French top flight is likely to be the only major division to allow fans back into stadiums upon its return. Up to 5,000 mask-wearing, socially distant fans will be present at each Ligue 1 game, as they were at both cup finals last month. Although, Friday’s opener between Marseille and St Étienne has already been postponed due to several positive tests within the Marseille squad while Nice will play their opening home game behind closed doors.
2. The return of Lens
Drawing parallels with Leeds United’s return to the Premier League, RC Lens – who were champions as recently as 1997-98 – will join the French elite for the first time in five years. Lens regularly recorded one of the country’s highest weekend attendances even in Ligue 2 and they remain one of France’s most historic and well supported clubs. Having hoovered up the second division’s best talent in recent times, Lens are well prepared for the top flight and boast a deep squad. New signing Gaël Kakuta adds experience and recent Ligue 1 pedigree, and gifted centre-back Loïc Badé and dynamic midfielder Cheick Doucouré, both 20, will be ones to watch. As will the renewal of Lens’ fierce Derby du Nord rivalry with Lille.
3) Stephy Mavididi at Montpellier
The Bundesliga has become something of a finishing school for young English talents in recent times but Stephy Mavididi has taken a slightly different path. After failing to start a game for the Arsenal first team, the Derby-born forward signed for Juventus in 2018. He appeared just once in Serie A before joining Dijon on loan last season. Five goals across 24 games for the Ligue 1 strugglers convinced Europa League-chasing Montpellier to spend €5.7m to secure his services. Mavididi, now 22, is quick, direct and can play in a variety of positions across the front line. He has represented England at U17, U18, U19 and U20 levels and told reporters this week that he is targeting a senior England call-up. Michel Der Zakarian’s pragmatic but swift counter-attacking team may be the perfect platform for him.
4) Monaco under Niko Kovac
One of the surprise managerial moves of the summer went a little unnoticed. Robert Moreno was sacked by Monaco in July after just 12 games in charge, some of which looked promising. With the board unconvinced by his man-management skills, new sporting director Paul Mitchell brought in Niko Kovac, whose more conservative, physical style will suit Ligue 1. Kovac has previous experience in bringing together and moulding an eclectic group of players at Frankfurt. With no European football and – to the club’s credit – having refocused recruitment on burgeoning Ligue 1 talents complemented by a smattering of experienced players, Monaco could finish in the Champions League places this season.
5. Emerging talents
Ligue 1 rebranded as “The League of Talents” before the 2018-19 season and the forthcoming campaign should again live up to that name. Promoted Lorient boast the promising 20-year-old Enzo Le Fee, a graceful, socks-rolled-down creative midfielder; Lyon midfielder Maxence Caqueret, also 20, will look to progress in his first full senior season after impressing in the Champions League; and 19-year-old left-back Rayan Ait-Nouri impressed so much for Angers during his first Ligue 1 campaign that he was linked with a move to Manchester United. Meanwhile some much-hyped but little-seen teenage prospects might be given their chances after switching clubs. Winger Isaac Lihadji (18) has joined Lille from Marseille; striker Amine Gouiri (20) has left Lyon for Nice; and Adil Aouchiche (18) has swapped PSG for St Étienne. They all have potential and will be given significant gametime at their new clubs.
6. Lyon’s rebuild
Winning the Champions League was Lyon’s last chance of playing European football for a 25th consecutive season. That mission ultimately ended in failure in the semi-finals and their prized assets may now depart. Houssem Aouar, Moussa Dembélé and Memphis Depay will all be sold if reasonable offers are made. Whether the inexperienced and, so far, ineffective sporting director Juninho can replace them appropriately remains to be seen. It will also be interesting to see whether or not Rudi Garcia succeeds in bringing through the club’s latest generation of thrilling academy starlets such as Caqueret, full-back Melvin Bard (19) and stocky forward Rayan Cherki (17). With no European distractions and a fresh, exciting young team, Lyon could become a real threat in Ligue 1 –if they are managed effectively.
7. Europe’s most competitive league
Although it’s tough to make a case for the title leaving Paris any time soon, the other 19 teams in Ligue 1 go into the new season neck and neck. With Marseille, Lyon, Lille and Monaco in transition, the promoted Lorient and Lens looking competitive and everyone in between boasting talent of their own – at least until Premier League clubs come along for their yearly pillage – Ligue 1 will be quite some scrap from top to bottom. Bordeaux could prove dangerous under astute, wizened former St Étienne coach Jean Louis-Gasset. An inexperienced Rennes will struggle to repeat their third-place finish now that they have to contend with Champions League football. Nice have made some promising early moves in the transfer window, with Sevilla winger Rony Lopes and Morgan Schneiderlin joining Patrick Vieira on the south coast. More than a dozen clubs are capable of a European charge, and the same number could fear relegation.
8) Marseille’s return to the Champions League
Marseille’s previous Champions League campaign in the 2013-14 season was an embarrassment. They finished with six defeats and zero points, while the other three teams in the group – Arsenal, Dortmund and Napoli – managed 12 points apiece. Their return to the competition could prove equally underwhelming. Hamstrung by the club’s long-running financial issues, André Villas-Boas may have to say goodbye to his most marketable players, such as winger Florian Thauvin and midfielder Morgan Sanson. The manager deserves significant credit for revitalising an often cantankerous and volatile club but he and his thin squad face an uphill task trying to balance a hectic domestic schedule with continent commitments.
9) European newcomers
Monaco, Lyon, St Étienne and Bordeaux all missed out on Europe this season. As a result, alongside PSG, Lille and Marseille, France will be represented by a group of less fashionable outfits. Rennes will play in the Champions League group stage for the first time after two promising campaigns in the Europa League. The club are guided by vibrant young coach Julien Stéphan and have some very good players – Eduardo Camavinga is the most exciting teenager in French football; Steven Nzonzi was on the field when France won the World Cup in 2018; and Martin Terrier has joined from Lyon as a marquee signing – but the Champions League proper may be a step too far for their inexperienced squad. Joining Lille and Nice in the Europa League are Stade de Reims, who are venturing into Europe for the first time since their 1960s golden era of Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine. They are well organised and their stoic defence makes them hard to beat, but their shallow squad will be stretched by the extra games.
10) Next summer’s transfer stories
If the exciting young players in Ligue 1 push on this season as expected, next summer’s transfer window will be particularly interesting. If Rennes hold on to Eduardo Camavinga – incredibly still just 17 – beyond this window, the all-round, dynamic, creative and battling midfielder will feature in many a transfer column throughout 2021. If Lyon rebuild around their 17-year-old forward Rayan Cherki, he will also be a wanted man next summer. And, after a year of development at Monaco, centre-back Axel Disasi will also feature heavily on Premier League shopping lists.