France: Marseille primed to move out of the shadows

Close title race is expected but country's best supported club have strengthened squad and could put match-fixing shame behind them

Olympique de Marseille, the best supported club in French football, may be in a position finally to shake off the match-fixing shame, the financial shenanigans and the sporting mediocrity of a wasted decade. A poll of French managers and players by the newspaper L'Equipe makes the strengthened Marseille team clear favourites to win the title this year for the first time since a string of four successive triumphs from 1990-1993 (the last of which was annulled because of the bribery of opposition players).

The other Olympique - the reigning champions, Olympique Lyonnais - have a big enough budget and squad, strikers apart, to scupper Marseille's hopes and, despite a defeat away to Lille in their first game, they could win a third title in succession. Whether they can improve on what is becoming a miserable French record in the European competitions is another question.

The third of the big budget and big city clubs, Paris St-Germain, have a new manager, the Serb Vahid Halilhodzic, who was formerly at Lille. PSG also have a new star, the Portuguese striker Pauleta, who was the highest scorer in the French league for the last two seasons, playing for Bordeaux.

Despite the loss of Ronaldinho, PSG, boosted by the Paris-obsessed national media and their long-suffering, manic-depressive fans, started the season with the highest hopes. They always do. A goalless home draw with unambitious Bastia and a 1-0 defeat at Lille in the opening matches of the season had the familiar, dull ring of the constant under-achievement of the capital's only professional club. Another "PSG crisis" by the end of October seems likely.

A posse of other clubs - Auxerre, Lens, Monaco, Sochaux - should challenge the two Olympiques to the end, as they did last year. French league football, unlike in England or Scotland, resists two club domination, however, some argue that this is a symptom of the general mediocrity of the French league.

It could equally be argued that it is a proof of a remarkable strength in depth.

Le Championnat may still be stripped of the great domestic names - the Henrys, Vieiras and Zidanes. It may have lost its last remaining, international star - Ronaldinho and his family retinue of brothers, sister and mother, who were all paid salaries by PSG - but the assembly line of young French talent, and its associated assembly line of young African talent, continues to replenish the squads of the 20 clubs (increased from 18 last year) in the league.

Despite a few high-profile departures (Ronaldinho, Sonny Anderson, Eric Djemba-Djemba), the real story of this close season has been a non-story.

Many of the younger generation of French stars, who might have been expected to move abroad by now, are still with their original clubs. The economic position of the French league (sapped by high taxes and relatively low television revenue) is no stronger than it was. But the financial clout of the predator clubs, especially in England and Italy, has been much reduced. As a result, Auxerre have been able to hang on, for another year at least, to their brilliant young striker, Djibril Cissé and their much admired central defenders Philippe Mexès and Jean-Alain Boumsong. Lyon still have their thrilling but appallingly inconsistent winger and striker Sydney Govou. Even provincial, impoverished Sochaux have kept the services of one of the brightest, young, French midfield talents, Benoît Pedretti, who has already impressed as an understudy for Zinedine Zidane with the national team.

Financial problems elsewhere may offer some hope that the French league may be able to close the gap with the Premiership, Serie A and the La Liga.

However, French clubs have problems of their own. The average attendance last season fell below 20,000 - the first fall since the apotheosis of Les Bleus in the 1998 World Cup created a boom in football-going in France. The economic difficulties of the main French cable TV channel, Canal Plus, have already reduced the budget of PSG (majority owned by the television company) and are likely to squeeze revenue for all clubs in the years ahead.

Only Marseille - with a large fan base - and Lyon with a crafty, far-seeing president in Jean-Michel Aulas, seem to have the long-term economic strength to aspire to match the Spanish, English and Italian clubs. Marseille, in particular, have been busy strengthening their squad in the close season and have started strongly with two 1-0 victories.

Philippe Christanval, an international central defender, has been repatriated from Barcelona. Stephan Vachousek, a Czech international, and Sylvain N'Diaye of Senegal, have strengthened the midfield. To put things in perspective, however, the total outlay of Marseille - the French big-spenders - on five new players was around £10m, a week's pocket money for Chelsea.

THREE TO WATCH IN LE CHAMPIONNAT

DJIBRIL CISSÉ (AUXERRE)

Few Auxerre fans would have predicted that Djibril Cissé would still be playing at the Stade de l'Abbé Deschamps this season. Said to be a long-term target for Liverpool, 22-year-old Cissé will be hoping to improve on a comparatively disappointing run last season. Although the Arles-born striker has become a regular face in the French national squad, his return of 14 goals from 33 matches last season was a drop on the previous year, when he hit 22 in 29 games. However, he has all the attributes to trouble even the best defences.

JEROME ROTHEN (MONACO)

Arsène Wenger was among those who considered signing Jérome Rothen when he made the breakthrough with Troyes, but it was Monaco who eventually took the plunge. It proved to be an excellent move for the talented winger, whose displays last season attracted the attention of many of Europe's leading clubs, as well as the French national manager, Jacques Santini. A creative player who is always looking to open up defences, Rothen was a key factor in Monaco's sustained challenge for the French title last season.

MODESTE M'BAMI (PARIS ST-GERMAIN)

Sedan's relegation to the Second Division at the end of last season was a bitter blow for a club which has been particularly adept at uncovering African talent. One of the players they have subsequently lost is Modeste M'Bami, a 20-year-old Cameroon international, who resisted an approach from Wolves and chose instead to join Paris St-Germain. A forceful midfielder in the Vieira mould, he should make a big impression in the French capital.

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