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Monaco back with bang but PSG remain favourites
The new Ligue 1 season gets underway on Friday after a summer dominated by behind-the-scenes turbulence at champions Paris Saint-Germain and the return of Monaco as a major force.
After winning their third league title in May, PSG saw coach Carlo Ancelotti leave for Real Madrid before influential sporting director Leonardo stood down after being banned for 14 months for pushing a referee.
Having missed out on numerous higher-profile names to replace Ancelotti, including Fabio Capello and Andre Villas-Boas, the capital club settled for former Bordeaux and France coach Laurent Blanc.
"Laurent Blanc is the best choice for us. He was one of our priorities," said PSG's Qatari president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, convincing few in the process.
However, Blanc has won Ligue 1 before, with Bordeaux in 2009, so he has the credentials to get the best out of a squad that has been further strengthened by the summer signings of Lucas Digne, Marquinhos and Edinson Cavani for a combined total of 114 million euros (US$152m).
Uruguay star Cavani, the top scorer in Serie A last season with Napoli, cost 64 million euros, a fee that broke the French transfer record set just weeks previously by Monaco's signing of Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid for 60 million euros.
The presence of Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack combined with Thiago Silva in defence means PSG are the favourites to retain the title but Monaco, without the distraction of European football, will hope to push them hard.
The principality club are back in the top flight as Ligue 2 champions, and the backing of Russian billionaire owner Dimitri Rybolovlev has allowed them to spend almost 150 million euros on the likes of Falcao, Porto duo James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho, Eric Abidal and Jeremy Toulalan.
Falcao is the big draw though, having netted more than 50 goals in La Liga in the last two seasons with Atletico Madrid.
"With Falcao, we will start every game a goal up already," says Monaco coach Claudio Ranieri. That may be exaggerated though, and the principality club were due to begin the season with a two-point deduction after a series of incidents at the end of a game last season.
The combined budget of PSG and Monaco amounts to almost two-thirds of that of the rest of Ligue 1 combined, and the gap in financial power means it is hard to see anyone else competing for the title, but Marseille could be dangerous outsiders.
OM are back in the Champions League and have invested intelligently this summer, with winger Dimitri Payet, outstanding last season for Lille, their major recruit.
"There will always be clubs capable of upsetting the odds. Paris and Monaco have made extraordinary signings, but we will start the season level with the rest," says Marseille coach Elie Baup.
The outlook is a little less positive at Lyon, where president Jean-Michel Aulas has been busy trying to slash his wage bill, and Remi Garde's side must return to the Champions League group stage to boost the atmosphere around the Stade de Gerland.
Elsewhere, having lost Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Borussia Dortmund, League Cup holders Saint-Etienne will do well to repeat last season's success, while Nice, who move into a new 35,000-seat stadium next month, have their work cut out to finish in the top five again.
Lille are rebuilding under new coach Rene Girard, who has been replaced at Montpellier by Jean Fernandez, while Philippe Montanier is aiming to revive Rennes after doing a fine job in Spain with Real Sociedad.
Meanwhile, Ajaccio have handed former Italy striker Fabrizio Ravanelli the chance to prove himself in a dugout. The Corsicans will be delighted just to stay up, as will the division's other newly-promoted clubs, eight-time champions Nantes and Guingamp.
Guingamp host Marseille in their opening game on Sunday, but the first match sees the last two champions clash at the Stade de la Mosson, with Montpellier hosting PSG.
Opening fixtures (kick-offs 1900 GMT unless stated)
Montpellier v Paris Saint-Germain (1830)
Bordeaux v Monaco, Evian-Thonon-Gaillard v Sochaux, Lille v Lorient, Lyon v Nice, Nantes v Bastia, Rennes v Reims, Valenciennes v Toulouse
Ajaccio v Saint-Etienne (1500), Guingamp v Marseille
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