The French top division also resumed last weekend, with Paris Saint-Germain FC considered once again as the absolute favourites, pursuing their 11th league title. Ligue 1 sees traditional powerhouses Saint-Étienne, Bordeaux and Metz being replaced by Toulouse FC, AC Ajaccio and AJ Auxerre.
One might expect that France’s fourth largest city has a major football club. However, Toulouse FC, founded only in 1970, spent 33 seasons in the first division during its history, and also dropped down to the third tier on a few occasions. Their best season, 2006-07, resulted in a third-place Ligue 1 finish and a place in the UEFA Champions League qualifying phase the following season, only to have been eliminated immediately by Liverpool. In the next league season, they finished fourth and earned a Europa League campaign, but dropped out in the group stage.
Their performance in Ligue 2 in the last season gave cause for optimism that this time they might stay in the first division for longer. Toulouse won the league by scoring 82 goals, an impressive 2.16 goals per game on average. They boast having Ligue 2’s top goal scorer, English forward Rhys Healey, as well as the league’s player of the season, Dutch midfielder Branco van den Broomen. The latter is the club’s most valuable player according to Football Benchmark, worth EUR 6.8m. What’s more, manager Phillippe Montanier was named Ligue 2 coach of the year.
With a stable squad, Toulouse have made only small and relatively cheap adjustments so far – top signings include Dutch attacking duo Thijs Dallinga (21) from Excelsior Rotterdam and Zakaria Aboukhlal (22) from AZ Alkmaar, bought for EUR 2.5m and EUR 2m, respectively.
Did you know? France’s World Cup-winning goalkeeper Fabien Barthez made his Ligue 1 debut with Toulouse in 1991.
Founded in 1910, Ajaccio became the first club from the island of Corsica to play in France's top division in 1967. Their latest, 3-year spell in Ligue 1 ended in 2013–14 – that relegation was even more painful, as it was confirmed by a defeat from their archrivals, fellow Corsican side Bastia.
Ajaccio’ most recent promotion, finishing second to Toulouse, is attributed primarily to the team’s formidable defence. They conceded only 19 goals, the fewest in Ligue 2, with Benjamin Leroy also named goalkeeper of the season. In contrast, Ajaccio were quite poor in attack: they scored only 39 goals, less than half of the 82 goals netted by Toulouse. Surprisingly though, recent transfers brought more defenders (3) to the club than attackers: the front line has so far only been strengthened by 35-year-old forward Romain Hamouma, signed from Saint Etienne, on a free transfer.
Did you know? Ajaccio is the capital of Corsica, and the birthplace of French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte.
Having finished 3rd in Ligue 2 last season, Auxerre returned to the top division after 10 years, through France’s unique relegation-promotion playoffs: in the final, they beat Saint-Ètienne (who finished 18th in Ligue 1) on penalties.
Although the club represents the little city of Auxerre which has only 35,000 inhabitants, it boasts some grand achievements. Founded in 1905, Auxerre joined Ligue 1 only in 1980, but stayed there for over three decades: in that time, they collected a league title, four Coupe de France trophies and two wins in the UEFA Intertoto Cup. Auxerre’s successes are largely attributed to one man, Guy Roux, who used to play for the club and then managed the side for more than 40 years and some 2,000 games, including 890 top-flight league matches. Besides on-pitch achievements, he was instrumental in establishing Auxerre’s renowned youth academy, which produced football stars such as Eric Cantona, Djibril Cissé, Basile Boli, Alain Goma and Philippe Mexès. Roux also helped other footballers to shine, including Laurent Blanc, Stéphane Guivarc'h and Enzo Scifo.
Currently, the club’s most valuable player is 25 -year-old winger Gauthier Hein at EUR 3.3m. Recent signings, mostly free transfers, overall aim to strengthen the side’s defence.
Did you know? In the 1995–96 season, Auxerre won to top division for the first time in their history, and also won the Coupe de France. That squad included players like Laurent Blanc, Stéphane Guivarc'h, Alain Goma and Bernard Diomede – they also featured in the France squad that won the FIFA World Cup on home soil in 1998.