Lyon are fancied, but PSG have most of the cards

IT’S all getting a little too predictable in France, with Paris Saint-Germain winning six of the last seven Ligue 1 titles and no real sign of the dominance ending. The financial advantages the club enjoys, means PSG should win everything – hence the club’s owners have an obvious sense of expectation and occasional impatience.

Should there be a genuine contender, it might just be Lyon, who have been busy strengthening their squad and have the look of an exciting team. But in all probability, PSG will be too strong even though they will surely lose Neymar before the deadlines close.

PSG’s wage bill dwarfs the rest of Ligue 1. There are 10 clubs in the division whose budget is less than € 50 million, in other words, less than 10% of PSG’s wallet. Nimes, the team PSG beat on the opening weekend, have a wage bill of just € 27 million. Neymar’s wages at PSG come to € 36 million, to provide even more perspective.

In 2012-13, PSG’s budget was € 300 million, with Lyon second with € 145 million. In 2019-20, the budget is reported to be € 580 million versus Lyon’s € 310 million, in other words, the financial gap has actually got bigger.

So, too, is the gulf on the playing field. PSG won Ligue 1 with 91 points and more than 100 goals. In second place was Lille, 16 points behind. In their six recent title wins, PSG’s average margin of success has been 13 points, the best being in 2015-16 when they were 21 better off than Lyon.

Everyone now knows that PSG can win the title at a canter, but their “holy grail” is the Champions League. For any team other than PSG to win the title, they have to hope the Parisiens take their eye off the ball or their big stars fail to shine. Lyon, or any other team, will have to over-perform for a prolonged period of time and it is doubtful they have the squad(s) to do that.

Since PSG joined the financial super league, French football has attained a higher profile, but from having five different champions between 2008 and 2012, PSG’s reign has only been interrupted by Monaco in 2017. The last team to dominate before PSG was, ironically, Lyon, who won seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles between 2002 and 2008.

France, to be brutally frank, needs a more balanced league and in the long run, PSG require more competition in order to keep themselves sharp and motivated. The domestic platform does not equip the club appropriately for European football. This may explain why PSG have consistently fallen short in the Champions League – playing the role of flat-track bullies, week-in, week-out, cannot possibly prepare them to face the continent’s elite. Put simply, PSG are unused to being pushed until they meet the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid and hence, they fall at the difficult hurdles.

Can this change? Monaco’s 2017 triumph shows that with the right collection of players, surprises can still happen in France. Lille’s second place last season was something of a shock, but they have lost their talismanic wide man, Nicolas Pépé to Arsenal. Lyon took a couple of their players, Youssof Koné and Thiago Mendes, so they might be weaker in 2019-20. Lyon did lose Tanguy Ndomebele to Tottenham Hotspur for € 62 million, Nabil Fekir to Real Betis (€ 20 million ) and Ferland Mendy to Real Madrid (€ 48 million) but that has not dampened enthusiasm for the team’s prospects.

As well as a host of signings, Lyon have a new coach in Sylvinho, the former Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester City full back. Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon’s president has taken a bit of a gamble in sanctioning the appointment of Sylvinho, especially as the outspoken Aulas has gone on record to say he really wanted a head coach who understood the DNA of the club. Sylvinho has no links with OL., but newly-hired general manager, Juninho Pernambucano, is a club legend. There was, at one point, talk of Arsène Wenger returning to French football with Lyon, while Rafa Benítez and José Mourinho were also linked with the club.

Lyon’s strength is their front line, which includes Memphis Depay, Moussa Dembélé and Bertrand Traoré, all of who are 25 or younger. CIES Football Observatory values this trio at around € 210 million and there was interest in former Celtic man Dembéle from Premier League clubs in the summer, but the club was insistent he was “going nowhere”.

Dembéle was on target in Lyon’s first game, a 3-0 win at Monaco, Memphis Depay and Lucas Tousart scored the other goals. Sylvinho was delighted with the outcome: “I hoped my team would play like this, there’s always improvements to be made, but I am happy.” Lyon’s approach was cautious, despite Monaco losing new signing Fabregas to a red card, but an emphatic away win was the ideal start for the Brazilian coach.

President Aulas is looking for Lyon to close the gap on PSG but has a realistic timeframe of 2022. “In the medium term, the goal is to get closer to PSG and we will continue to invest. We have to be patient, it is a project of three to five years. Given the budget gap between the two clubs, 2022 is reasonable.”


PSG’s light still shining, albeit less brightly

LIGUE 1 gets underway next weekend and regardless of whether Neymar stays or goes, Paris Saint-German will be favourites for their seventh title win in eight seasons.

PSG were champions once more in 2018-19 by a 16-point margin, suggesting the gulf between the Paris club and the rest of the division shows no sign of diminishing. With 105 goals and 29 wins in 38 games, PSG’s dominance has been impressive but at the same time, disturbing and somewhat embarrassing.

Because of Neymar’s “will he, won’t he” situation, PSG have been somewhat cautious in the summer break. They have spent money though, buying outstanding defender Abdou Diallo from Borussia Dortmund for € 32 million, Idris Gueye from Everton for the same amount, Sevilla’s Pablo Sarabia for a bargain € 19.5 million and also snapped-up Ander Herrera on a free from Manchester United. No high-end signings, but some useful acquisitions. Simultaneously, they’ve also raised € 75 million on player sales.

PSG’s overwhelming grip on French football – their budget was € 500 million last season, versus the € 285 million of their nearest contender, Lyon –  has started to work against them when they reach the continental arena. Put simply, they cannot beat the elite clubs at the crucial stage of the UEFA Champions League, arguably because they don’t get challenged enough on a week-by-week basis.

The past three seasons have seen PSG fall at the round of 16, losing to Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Prior to that, they had reached four quarter-finals, losing twice to Barca and once each to Manchester City and Chelsea. This suggests that while, domestically, PSG appear to get stronger, they are falling further behind the Premier and La Liga clubs.

If they lose Neymar, it is unlikely that PSG will miss the Brazilian in Ligue 1. In the two seasons that Neymar has been with Le Parisiens, he has played less than half of the 76 league games PSG have played. In 37 games, he has scored 34 goals, but he has been absent more than he’s been present. In those two seasons, PSG have scored 213 goals in the league.

Neymar now knows that Ligue 1 is probably not the platform for him to win the Ballon d’Or that he craves. Only once, Jean-Pierre Papin of Marseille in 1991, has a Ligue 1 player lifted the coveted award.

Thomas Tuchel, the PSG coach, is eager for Neymar to stay and who can blame him? After all, Tuchel has the 2019-20 season to prove PSG can compete at the very highest level. Regardless of the Neymar situation, PSG do need to conduct a little rebuilding exercise.

It is fair to say the current PSG squad will not get better unless they sign more players or start to field their younger players who can still develop. Thiago Silva and Angel Di Maria are both over 30 and Edison Cavani is 32. The youngest likely regular is Kylian Mbappé who is still only 20. It was something of a surprise that the club let two potential-rich players, Moussa Diaby and Christopher Nkunku go to Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig respectively.

The need to build a Champions League team and future-proof their team means PSG are continually linked with big-name players, including Pablo Dybala of Juventus, Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté and Gareth Bale. Until Neymar’s future is decided, they are likely to sit on their hands to ensure they have the war chest if they have to replace him.

PSG will undoubtedly attempt to sign a talismanic player in order to keep the momentum behind their “brand” going. Since the project gathered pace seven or eight years ago, they have had players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar and Mbappé to make headlines and position the club among the movers and shakers in Europe. Although their current squad, even without Neymar, will surely be good enough to win more silverware, it is the European question that still remains unanswered. Unless PSG deliver a decent Champions League campaign, there could be another change in the dugout come next summer.

Photo: PA