2013/14 Preview: Ligue 2 Kick-off

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It’s that time of year again when the dust begins to settle, the smell of fresh grass wafts through the corridors to the changing rooms and a sense of optimism swells inside every supporter. There really is nothing better than the beginning of the football season.

As Paris and Monaco splash their cash in Ligue 1 in preparation for world-wide dominance, the more humble surroundings of Ligue 2 takes a slightly more subdued approach than last year. Transfer movement has been at a minimum and the teams on a whole seem less ‘glamorous’ but that’s not to say this season isn’t going to be a corker.

Last time round it almost felt like a drawn-out pantomime at times with Monaco and Nantes taking control fairly early on. We knew where the story was going and how it was going to end but they teased and entertained us along the way. What a lot of people did miss though was a handful of teams just below the top 2 or 3 who vastly improved and at times impressed during the course of the season. Now the ‘big boys’ have skipped off to play with older brother Ligue 1, it’s time for Ligue 2 to showcase the talents of the new, the old and the main-stayers in the lower depths of French football. Let’s have a look at who potentially could make some waves this time round.

Although the top three turned out to be a forgone conclusion with two or three weeks to go, it’s easy to forget that the most sought-after third spot was a close run thing for the majority of the season. Of course EA Guingamp rightfully took automatic promotion after some simply fantastic displays but it was the likes of SM Caen and Angers SCO that made life a little uncomfortable at times. Both sides put in several good performances throughout the season but ultimately ran out of steam in the closing months. Caen’s solid and reliable approach soon turned into a cause for stalemates, drawing six of their last eight games with three coming against Angers, Havre and Dijon, who all occupied the other slots in the chasing pack. Their defensive strengths, which saw Damien Perquis concede only 27 goals in 38 games and leftback Raphael Guerreiro also impress, was not matched in the attacking half of the field. Mathieu Duhamel’s 13 goals were helpful but hardly suggested an attacking threat. With that said the foundations of the squad remain and should provide a good platform to build on. The loss of Guerreiro, who was included in the Ligue 2 Team of the Year, is a blow but the acquisitions of Monaco’s Dennis Appiah and SC Bastia’s Jerome Rothen are shrewd pieces of business. If they can perform consistently from the get-go and find a few more goals, there’s a good chance Caen might just sneak into the top three.

If goals were Caen’s Achilles’ heel last year, Angers certainly had no such problems. With top goalscorer Claudiu Keseru leading the line the North Western side certainly made their presence felt. 2-2s, 3-2s, 3-3s and 4-1s were all on the menu but may also have been the cause of Angers’ stumble at the last hurdle. Much like rivals Caen, they too ran out of steam in the final months despite a 2-0 win over a good Nantes side. Inconsistency seemed to be their main problem overall as defeats to key opponents around them in the table became somewhat of a theme. Losses to Guingamp, Caen and Monaco littered their record despite winning 17 games and bagging 52 goals along the way. Fast forward to this season and the team still should be there or thereabouts. The loss of their top scorer Keseru to SC Bastia is a huge sucker punch but there’s no reason why Angers can’t go one better and gain that all-important promotion. The excellent Gregory Malicki still guards their net while a handful of reinforcements have been made via transfers. In all honesty they’re a tough side to predict but I’ve no doubt they’ll bring the entertainment once again this year.

The best of the rest of course come in the form of the three relegated sides; AS Nancy-Lorraine, ESTAC Troyes and Stade Brestois. I’d argue it’s not unfair to label them as yo-yo clubs (with the exception of Nancy) and thus should be considered as an immediate threat to promotion. Nancy seem best placed for that challenge despite a fractious time last season. A dreadful start ultimately sent them to the depths of the table and a tough cluster of games to round the season off put the final nail in the coffin. The side hasn’t graced Ligue 2 since 2004/05 season and won’t be best pleased at the prospect of trips to Stade Lavallois and Chateauroux. But the fact remains they have a stronger side than most in the league. One player in their ranks could be a huge asset; Yohan Mollo. The player spent the second half of last season on loan at Saint-Etienne after a fallout with then manager Jean Fernandez and certainly impressed for Les Verts. It seems Sainte are not poised to take the attacking midfielder on permanently though and that could be a huge boost to Nancy. If he stays there’s no doubting the impact he will have, but with or without him Patrick Gabriel’s side are contenders to bounce back at first time of asking.

While maybe not boasting the squad Nancy have, Troyes and Brest should still be in and around the top four or five come Week 38. It goes without saying that Brest were woeful for large parts of the 2012/13 season with Troyes only marginally better. But without any disrespect intended towards the core of the sides in Ligue 2, a top five finish is the least the clubs should expect. Whether or not they achieve that is another matter. There’s a strong chance they could get dragged into a dogfight mid-table with the likes of Auxerre and Tours. If such a thing happens it will be tough to break free and set their aim higher. In comparison between the two sides I’d imagine it would be Brest who could be sucked into the abyss of Ligue 2. With that all said this league can have big blobs of grey areas. It’s tough to out and out pick favourites, a mid-table group and a relegation scrap. Troyes and Brest right now are certainly looking a deep shade of grey.

As for the rest of the not-so-best, both le Havre and Dijon are worth keeping an eye on. They finished 6th and 7th respectively last season and especially in the case of le Havre played some nice football. Under the guidance of Erik Mombaerts, Le HAC vastly improved in style and substance. Their possession-based, pass-and-move approach was a joy to watch at times although their lack of penetration was often the difference between a win and a draw. They certainly have talent (namely last year’s Goalkeeper of the Season Zacharie Boucher) and will no doubt look to expand on their attractive approach this year hoping to add an effective attacking element as well.

Dijon, Auxerre and RC Lens make up your ‘been there, done that’ group. Their 7th, 9th and 12th finishing places hardly scream out ‘great season’ although these three are veterans at this level and arguably should have been higher. Dijon certainly will look to push on although worries still linger over the other two. Both clubs are famous for producing some talented youngsters and will be hoping that another batch is around the corner as money becomes increasingly tight in France and the world of football as a whole.

The last group to mention of course is the new boys. CA Bastia, FC Metz and US Creteil all make the step up with Metz of course attracting most of the attention. A relegation battle seems odds on for Bastia and Creteil although there’s a few who suggest a mid-table finish for Les Grenats is more likely. For this old romantic it would certainly be nice to see Metz do well as their history is rich within top-flight French football.

Whatever the outcome of this season’s 38 weeks of competition I truly hope the increase of interest around the league is sustained. Okay so we’ve lost Monaco and Nantes and sure, some of the games can be an eyesore but the pros outweigh the cons for me. You get to see some of the best young talent in the country, and sometimes the world, learning their trade. It’s competitive and unpredictable week in, week out. But most importantly for me this little league still has its heart set solely on football. It might not be pretty at times but it sure is charming.

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