Ligue 1 preview: Neymar has arrived, as champions Monaco are dismantled
After a wonderful 2016-17 season, Ligue 1 is bracing itself for yet another top campaign. Can a weaker Monaco retain their title? Can anyone stop Paris Saint-Germain and Neymar? Marseille are stronger, Lyon have done their revolution, Nice have been clever again, Bordeaux look interesting, Lille and Marcelo Bielsa are exciting, as are Claudio Ranieri and Nantes.
Ligue 1 has found itself a new King in Neymar, will meet new faces (Bertrand Traore, Youri Tielemans, Luis Gustavo and Thiago Maia) and old ones (Steve Mandanda, Adil Rami and Mario Balotelli). It also lost, as usual, some of its best talents (Tiemoue Bakayoko, Corentin Tolisso, Bernardo Silva, Ricardo Pereira, Benjamin Mendy, Alexandre Lacazette, Adam Ounas, Amine Harit and Sebastien Corchia) and more might follow (Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, Fabinho, Angel Di Maria, Jean Seri, Yann Karamoh and Dalbert.)
PSG with Neymar
What a difference 12 months can make. Last summer, PSG approached their transfer window in a more low-key way. Zlatan Ibrahimovic left and the club tried to do a clever recruitment more than a glittering one. Jese, Hatem Ben Arfa and Grzegorz Krychowiak arrived and all failed. This summer, Paris went big; bigger than anyone else ever. They signed Neymar for €222 million and free-agent Dani Alves, and kept their other gems, Marquinhos, Edinson Cavani and Marco Verratti.
Right now, at least domestically, they are untouchable. Manager Unai Emery has learnt a lot from last season. His team's second part of the league campaign, where they took more points than any other, shows that they have improved and got a grip on what he was asking his players to do. PSG are way stronger than last season. With Neymar and Alves, they are probably the best team ever assembled in French football history.
Mbappe in or out?
After the Neymar saga, French football has another one on its hands: Kylian Mbappe's future and with him, Monaco's future. The 18-year-old prodigy has had an exceptional rise since January. Some reports in France say that he wants to leave the French champions and that the club are demanding €180m to let him go. Are Real Madrid or Barcelona ready to pay that much? Probably. Mbappe is such a special talent and his final decision will have a huge impact on the Ligue 1 season.
Obviously, Monaco will be a totally different team with or without him. After already losing Mendy, Silva and Bakayoko, as well as Valere Germain and Nabil Dirar, it would be another huge blow for the Principality club to lose their gem. Whatever happens to the young France international, it will be a transition season for the Champions. They saw the end of their golden generation and are rebuilding the next one. Radamel Falcao is still there, and, for now, so are Lemar and Fabinho.
The League of Gentlemen
If the English Premier League is still, without a doubt, the home of the world's best managers, Ligue 1 also has a very interesting lineup of No. 1 coaches on its benches. The best manager in the world, according to Pep Guardiola, is Bielsa and two years after leaving Marseille, he is back in France. He will try to lead Lille to new heights.
Monaco's Leonardo Jardim worked wonders last season, but it is a much bigger challenge that awaits him this year. Emery has to start well at PSG after a disappointing campaign last year. Lucien Favre was wanted by Borussia Dortmund in the summer but stayed in Nice after an excellent first season.
Ranieri, sacked by Leicester last season, chose Nantes to continue his career. Rudi Garcia at Marseille has a solid reputation, and Bordeaux's Jocelyn Gourvennec is the most promising young French manager around. It will be interesting to follow Oscar Garcia's first season at St Etienne and Christian Gourcuff's second at Rennes. On the other hand, Bruno Genesio still has a lot to prove at Lyon.
Neymar, Barcelona to PSG, £198m
Who else? He is the biggest transfer in the history of football. The Brazilian superstar has chosen PSG and Ligue 1 to pursue his career after deciding to leave Barcelona. He will bring his new club and his new league to another level. At 25, he is expected to make this team his own.
Luis Gustavo, Wolfsburg to Marseille, £7m
Marseille needed a leader in midfield, strong, solid with great experience and a winning mentality. They found the perfect one in Luis Gustavo, 30, the former Bayern Munich and Brazil defensive midfielder. Alongside Mandanda in goal, Rami at the back and Germain up front, also all recruited this summer so far, Marseille went for experience and leadership and had an excellent transfer window.
Youri Tielemans, Anderlecht to Monaco, £22m
After selling some of their key players, Monaco are rebuilding a competitive squad and they believe the Belgium international, 20, represents the future of the club. The French champions will want him to replace Bakayoko and dictate the way Monaco will play this season. With his vision, the quality of his passes and quick feet, he has everything to be a huge success.
Alexandre Lacazette, Lyon to Arsenal, £46.5m
It was always going to happen. After spending pretty much all his life at Lyon, Lacazette, 26, left his club and his hometown for a big transfer to Arsenal. In six seasons in Ligue 1, Lacazette was the best French striker with 129 goals in 275 matches. With him, Tolisso (Bayern Munich) and Maxime Gonalons (Roma) also left, meaning the end of an era at the club.
Benjamin Mendy, Monaco to Manchester City, £52m
Eighteen months ago, he was not even always starting for Marseille. Now, Mendy is the most expensive defender in the history of football. His move to Manchester City capped a wonderful season with Monaco where he also broke into the France national team. At 23, he is in the top five left-backs in the world and seems to have no limits.
Amine Harit, Nantes to Schalke, £9m
As usual, Ligue 1 has already lost some of its brightest and youngest prospect this summer. Harit, 20, the wonderfully gifted Nantes attacking midfielder, U19 European champion last summer with France, left for Schalke after just one season in Ligue 1. Adam Ounas, 20, joined Napoli from Bordeaux for more or less the same amount, like Jean-Kevin Augustin, 20, arriving at RB Leipzig from PSG.
Who will win the league?
Now that PSG have their superhero in Neymar, and while Monaco can still lose theirs in Mbappe, the French title is Les Parisien's to lose this season. They are the outstanding favourite to regain the crown they abandoned to Monaco last season after four coronations in a row previously. PSG simply look unbeatable at the moment.
Behind them, four teams will fight for second and third places: Monaco and Lyon are in transition after losing key players while the Marseille project is interesting under Garcia with some solid signings. Nice and Balotelli are still so talented and exciting. Outside of this top five, Lille, Rennes, Bordeaux or St Etienne could be the season's surprise package.
Battle at the bottom
Last season offered a dramatic fight against relegation with almost 10 clubs involved until very late in the campaign. It should be the same this year. The three promoted teams (Amiens for the first time, Troyes after one season in Ligue 2 and Strasbourg who haven't play in the top flight since 2008) all look in danger. But Dijon and Metz will not be far off either, while Caen and Angers have to be careful too.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.