Ligue 1 has always been a halfway house when it comes to European football. Its league has historically been considered superior to many of those in the east in the continent, yet France’s top sides have never quite measured up to the elite in Germany, Italy and Spain (or, dare I say it, England).
In the last two years, two of the league’s most successful clubs, Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco, have benefited from takeovers by consortia who promised to pump eye-watering sums of money into the club in an attempt to get them to Europe’s top table on a regular basis.
Since then, the top two clubs have experienced divergent fortunes. PSG were bought by Qatar Sports Investments (QSi) in 2011 for the relatively modest sum of €50 million, with the figure eventually rising to €100 million. Following the purchase of the club, PSG finished the 2011-2012 season in 2nd behind Montpellier, and in the process broke the record for the highest points tally for a second-placed team in Ligue 1 (79). They have not looked back since, wrapping up the league title in the following three seasons (by margins of 12, nine and eight points respectively), and claiming nine honours since the takeover a little under five years ago. The club have also banished lingering doubts about the ability of sides from across the Channel to attract the cream of the crop. Among these big-money signings were Thiago Silva (signed from AC Milan for around €42 million) and Lucas Moura (signed for more than €40 million as a teenager), as well as David Luiz and Angel di Maria. The purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimovic added a further cutting edge to their team. Despite reports of off-field wrangling at previous clubs, his goalscoring record at nearly all the clubs he has played for has been impressive. Added to that the guile of Javier Pastore and the athleticism and tenacity of Blaise Matuidi and you have a force to be reckoned with.
In all, the club has spent over €500 million on players, in the hope that they will not just dominate domestically, but will unsettle those in the upper echelons of the Champions League. Their 4-2 aggregate win over Chelsea this week suggests that, despite the London club’s struggles, they may be ready to mount a serious challenge in this year’s competition. This is the fourth time in succession that they have reached the quarter-finals, and having been knocked by Barcelona (twice) and Chelsea on the previous three occasions, they will be looking to break through the glass ceiling this time around.
AS Monaco’s ride has not been so smooth. They were purchased at a similar time as PSG, by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev following their relegation to Ligue 2 in 2011. This was an ignominious fall from grace for the Corsicans, who had been one of the giants of French football in the preceding decades. Following the injection of Rybolovlev’s roubles, the team made a return to the promised land in 2013 under the stewardship of Claudio Ranieri, quickly acquiring the services of highly-prized sharp-shooter Radamel Falcao and youthful sensation James Rodriguez that summer. Their first season back in the big time was a roaring success, as they finished second, with Rodriguez and Falcao playing starring roles. However, following Colombia’s electrifying showing at the World Cup, it was inevitable that massive clubs would come calling. Both made moves to more illustrious surroundings (Rodriguez headed to Real Madrid for an astronomical fee, while Falcao departed for United on loan). As a result of these losses, they regressed, finishing 12 points adrift of PSG in third position during the last campaign. They have also failed, in the time that Rybolovlev has been on the throne, to claim any domestic silverware. Furthermore, although they made the last-eight of last season’s premier European competition, a defeat to Valencia this campaign at the play-off stage meant that they had to be content with a spot in the Europa League. To add insult to injury, they were unable to qualify from their group, finishing comfortably behind both Tottenham and Anderlecht.
In turn, they have failed to convince potential foreign imports that they are similar in ambition to PSG. They have not splashed out nearly to the same extent, while expensive recruits like Geoffrey Kondogbia, Aymen Abdennour and Lucas Ocampos moved on to pastures new relatively quickly. PSG’s strength was in signing players like Javier Pastore, Ibrahimovic and di Maria, who had all shone in more competitive leagues. By contrast, Monaco have not been able to make any real marquee signings since the days of Falcao and Rodriguez, leading the project to look a little stale.
This chasm that seems to be developing has been drawn into sharp focus this season. While Les Rouges et Blancs are second in the table, six points ahead of Lyon (who so ruthlessly dominated for most of the noughties), Les Parisiens have waltzed effortlessly into a 23-point lead over their cash-rich adversaries. Such is their dominance that they could sew up the title this weekend, a tad more than two months before the final round of fixtures is played.
What this state of affairs goes to show is that while we may bemoan English clubs for falling behind in the pursuit of European glory, there is always another side to the argument. PSG are exceptionally strong, but they have made the rest of the league look feeble. We should be thankful that four teams just about remain in contention for the Premier League title, and that the top two have come on leaps and bounds, breaking up the cosy cabal of clubs that seem firmly ensconced at the top of the division. For French football, that intrigue and unpredictability could not seem more remote.
Featured image: Franck Fife/AFP