PARIS (AP) — After winning its sixth French championship in seven years last season, Paris Saint-Germain is expected to continue its dominance in what at times can look like a one-team league.
For the Qatari-backed PSG, the minimum requirement remains the same: win the French league. PSG’s ultimate goal is also unchanged: win the Champions League after years of repeated failures.
With its 500-million euro budget — more than five times that of last season runner-up Lille — huge sponsorship deals and top-class players, PSG simply has no rival in a league lacking strength in depth.
On paper, Thomas Tuchel’s team looks even stronger than last season, when it was crowned champion with five games to spare despite a late dip of form.
Amid persistent rumors that Neymar will leave the club and return to Barcelona, PSG remains a formidable attacking force with the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria. It also strengthened its backline this summer with the addition of Dortmund defender and France Under-21 international Abdou Diallo, while recruits Idrissa Gueye, Ander Herrera and Pablo Sarabia will provide midfield stability and experience.
Sarabia, Herrera and Diallo were included in Tuchel’s starting XI last weekend as PSG sealed a seventh consecutive Trophee des Champions — the French equivalent of the Charity Shield — with a 2-1 win over Rennes. PSG took pride in the win, insisting on the importance of the trophy, the 40th since the club’s inception back in 1970.
But in reality, the only title that really matters in the French capital is the Champions League.
Success in Europe’s top competition has so far proved elusive for PSG, which has never been beyond the quarterfinals since Qatari backers QSI started funding the club with huge investment eight years ago.
In the past three seasons PSG has gone out in the Round of 16, twice wasting strong first-leg leads. The last time it was against Manchester United in March, when PSG became the first team to be eliminated from the competition after winning the away leg 2-0.
“We need to carry on in the league, we need to extend our domination,” Mbappe said. “We lost two national Cups (last season), we will try to recover them. And there is the Champions League. We have come to a halt in recent years, it’s up to us to find a solution and reach a new milestone.”
More than the offseason recruits, Leonardo’s return as sporting director could be the decisive ingredient that was missing in PSG’s quest for European glory. Leonardo, who became PSG’s sporting director for the first time in July 2011 and held his role until May 2013, has been given full powers by club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
At a club where star individuals often appear more important than the team itself, Leonardo’s return will mark a change of style in the players’ management. A disciplinarian, Leonardo has warned Neymar that he would not let him go unless a juicy offer arrived and has reportedly criticized the Brazil star in front of his teammates after he reported late for PSG’s pre-season training.
“I don’t have the key that is going to open the door to the Champions League,” Leonardo said in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper. “Who has it? Not me. I just want to be clear about our goal: the club is THE great institution at the heart of the entire project.”
PSG starts the defense of its title on Sunday at the Parc des Princes against Nimes. Lille hosts Nantes, Marseille plays Reims at home and Lyon travels to Monaco on Friday night in the season’s opening game.
NO MONEY, BIG GOALS
After a calamitous season, Marseille’s main goal is to return to the Champions League under new coach Andre Villas-Boas.
Three years after American billionaire Frank McCourt pledged to revive the 1993 Champions League winners, Marseille failed in its bid to qualify for Europe’s top competition and did not even get a spot in the Europa League.
Villas-Boas subsequently replaced Rudi Garcia and, despite very limited funds to spend on new players, has promised to deliver quickly in his bid to restore Marseille’s past luster.
“I don’t want to lose time with excuses,” he said. “I’m hoping for a podium finish.”
Villas-Boas has lured 29-year-old forward Dario Benedetto from Boca Juniors and hopes he will be able to keep Valere Germain, Florian Thauvin, Dimitri Payet and Luis Gustavo at the southern club.
“We don’t have money, it’s a shame but it’s a reality,” Villas-Boas said. “We have some problems related to Financial Fair Play regulations. Now I’m waiting anxiously for the end of the English transfer market because that could change everything for the other teams.”
Nicolas Pepe and Nabil Fekir have become the latest big names to depart the French league as the talent exodus to foreign clubs continues.
After scoring 22 league goals for Lille, Pepe left for Arsenal while World Cup winner Nabil Fekir joined Real Betis from Lyon.
Lyon’s new coaching setup of sporting director Juninho and coach Sylvinho have yet to find a replacement for Fekir, who left in the wake of other top players including Tanguy Ndombele and Ferland Mendy.
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