LIGUE 1

Ligue 1 is back: PSG in a league of their own as French top flight returns

The 2020-21 Ligue 1 season gets under way this weekend, with mighty Paris Saint-Germain seeking an eighth title in nine seasons.

Ligue 1 is back: PSG in a league of their own as French top flight returns

The reigning Ligue 1 champions, Paris Saint-Germain, have bigger fish to fry as their domestic 2020-21 campaign begins.

As Thomas Tuchel's team prepare to face Bayern Munich in Sunday's Champions League final, a new season is dawning in France, with the Parisians targeting an eighth Ligue 1 crown in nine years.

It barely needs saying that they begin as firm favourites, with the rest of the league likely jostling for places behind the team of superstars from the Parc des Princes.

Lorient and Lens return to the elite for the new term, and using Opta data we look at key matters on the agenda as France's top flight returns.

A long wait

Bordeaux and Nantes headed into Friday evening's league opener, contesting the first Ligue 1 games for 167 days. The final game of the 2019-20 season turned out to be Lille's clash with Lyon on March 8, with the league suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then abandoned in April, with final placings determined on a points-per-game basis.

The gap between games is the longest Ligue 1 has seen since World War II.

PSG, firm favourites

The immense wealth of their Qatari owners has allowed PSG to assemble an all-star team, and they are delivering at home, as treble winners, and now finally in European competition.

Kylian Mbappe shared top spot in the scoring charts with 18 goals last season, the same as Monaco's Wissam Ben Yedder, while Angel Di Maria was king of the assists, his haul of 14 twice as many as the next players on the list, Islam Slimani and Yoann Court (7).

Nobody completed more dribbles than Neymar's 90, with Lille's Jonathan Ikone second on the list with 73 - a total that might have been higher had Ikone not been substituted 21 times in his 28 appearances.

PSG have implemented a little quality control too, noticing the diminishing returns from Edinson Cavani and allowing the Uruguayan, their record scorer, to depart at the end of his contract. Cavani scored just four goals in Ligue 1 last season and missed 16 'big chances'. Those are defined by Opta as situations "where a player should reasonably be expected to score", and Cavani was repeatedly coming up short.

Mbappe missed the most 'big chances' of all players in the league - 19 - but his goal return suitably offset those squandered opportunities. And of players who scored more than two goals across the curtailed season, Mbappe's minutes-per-goal average was top of the league, as he netted every 84.11 minutes.

Where could a challenge come from?

Lyon feel they have a point to prove, having been dismayed by the curtailing of last season and the points-per-game ruling. They showed in reaching the Champions League semi-finals that they boast abundant talent, and it would be surprising were they not to finish significantly higher in the new campaign.

Marseille finished second last term and have succeeded in keeping head coach Andre Villas-Boas, perhaps their most important achievement in the off-season.

Lille lost Victor Osimhen to Napoli but look to have recruited well, with Jonathan David's 18 goals for Gent in the Belgian Pro League last season making him joint top scorer. The experienced Turkish targetman Burak Yilmaz has arrived from Besiktas too, and should do well.

Putting chances away is where Lille fell short last season, with their goals return comparing unfavourably to their 'expected goals' (xG). They netted 35 times in 28 games, but their xG tally stood at 40.56, meaning they 'should' have scored five to six more goals. Opta statistics show that was the largest negative differential for a team currently in the top-flight.

Perhaps Monaco might mount a challenge, being the last side other than PSG to lift the title, when they surprisingly took the 2016-17 honours.

Their new coach is Niko Kovac, who lost his job at Bayern Munich last November, and Monaco will hope he leads them into an era of stability.

Wouldn't it be Nice?

Monaco's Cote d'Azur neighbours Nice may be likelier top-three finishers, with Patrick Vieira investing in plenty of young talent.

An experienced face in the Nice ranks is another new recruit - Morgan Schneiderlin. The former Southampton, Everton and Manchester United midfielder returns to Ligue 1 after 12 years and 200 games played in the Premier League, and should he play against Lens on Sunday, he will be back in French league action for the first time in 4,481 days, his last game having been for Strasbourg at Marseille in May 2008.

That would be the fifth longest gap between two French top-flight games for a same player since 1950.