Nonda the key to Monaco title defence

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The Independent Online

Claude Puel knows how tough it will be for his Monaco side to hang on to the French league title they won last season - particularly now that their principal rivals, Paris St Germain, have signed Nicolas Anelka from Real Madrid.

Claude Puel knows how tough it will be for his Monaco side to hang on to the French league title they won last season - particularly now that their principal rivals, Paris St Germain, have signed Nicolas Anelka from Real Madrid.

Monaco finished seven points clear as they won their second championship in four years, but no team have retained the title since Marseilles won four successive titles from 1989-1992. Their task is made even harder by an exodus of some of their best players during the off-season, as well as the likelihood of a gruelling Champions' League campaign.

"This season will be a big challenge for us as we not only seek to hold on to our title but also go as far as we can in Europe," Puel said. "This club have won the title several times but never managed to hold on to it. That is our challenge."

Monaco were unbeaten at home in the league last season when they relied heavily on David Trézéguet - the scorer of the golden goal that made France champions at Euro 2000 final - Sabri Lamouchi, Fabien Barthez and Willy Sagnol, all of whom have left.

The unenviable task of replacing Trézéguet has been given to the rising star of African football, Shabani Nonda, the 21-year-old Burundian striker who was signed from Rennes for £13.5m, a record fee between French sides. Stéphane Porato takes over in goal from Barthez, now with Manchester United.

Paris St Germain and Lyon, the other two French representatives in the Champions' League, are again likely to be title contenders. PSG finished second last year and have spent more than £40m in the transfer market, including the £21.5m paid for Anelka. Their aim is to recapture the power of the mid-1990s, when they won the league in 1994 and the European Cup-winners' Cup.

The former Marseilles pair Peter Luccin and Stéphane Dalmat will boost the midfield, while the former Metz goalkeeper Lionel Letizi could prove better than the veteran Bernard Lama, who has signed for Rennes.

Jacques Santini has taken over from Bernard Lacombe as the coach of Lyon, who look strengthened by the signings of the dynamic midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé from West Ham, the striker Steve Marlet from Auxerre and the Swiss international midfielder Patrick Muller.

Fixtures: Today: Marseilles v Troyes (18.45 BST); Paris St Germain v Strasbourg (20.45). Tomorrow (all 20.00): Lille v Monaco; Nantes v Lens; Auxerre v Sedan; Bordeaux v Metz; Guingamp v St Etienne; Lyon v Rennes; Toulouse v Bastia.

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