Virus resurgence casts pall over France’s Ligue 1 season kick-off

With Champions League finalists Paris Saint-Germain way above the cut, the question in France is not who will win the next Ligue 1 title, but how the season will be played amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Olympique de Marseille were scheduled to play the curtain-raiser against Saint-Etienne on Friday but four confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus at the Provence club meant that the French League postponed the match.

Marseille coach Andre Villas-Boas will have to wait for his team to start their 2020-21 Ligue 1 campaign after four people tested positive for the coronavirus at the club.
Marseille coach Andre Villas-Boas will have to wait for his team to start their 2020-21 Ligue 1 campaign after four people tested positive for the coronavirus at the club. © Pascal Guyot, AFP

Girondins de Bordeaux will host Nantes instead as the LFP started to reshuffle the calendar before the first kick-off of the season. The 2019-20 season was cut short with 11 games left amid the pandemic.

“I’m pessimistic. I don’t see this league happening in normal conditions. We’re not going to have so many dates for postponed games and soon we’re going to hit a wall,” Saint-Etienne coach Claude Puel said.

More than half of the top division’s clubs have recorded cases of the disease — totalling some 40 players — jeopardising their preparation and causing the cancellation of many pre-season friendlies.

One of those players is Nantes captain Abdoulaye Toure, whose side had recorded seven virus cases since the end of last month but will currently play the season’s opening match.

Montpellier announced on Wednesday the club’s top scorer from last season, Andy Delort, became their seventh case of the pandemic, while Nimes’ opening match with Brest on Sunday could also be postponed after they registered four new cases this week.

A 57-page medical and health protocol set up by the League is designed to limit stoppages and reduce contamination as much as possible. 

Players will be tested two to three days before each match and a game should be postponed as soon as four cases are found at the same club within an eight-day period. This is precisely what happened to Marseille and could happen to Nimes.

Notwithstanding fears over the virus, some fans will be allowed to attend matches, with a government-mandated maximum of 5,000 people including the teams and coaching and organisational staff permitted to enter stadiums.

However fan groups at several clubs said the rules mean they will not go to matches.

Lyon’s Champions League blues

With the transfer market also dampened, PSG are expected to retain Neymar and Kylian Mbappé as they aim for an eighth title in nine years.

Even if coach Thomas Tuchel has some remodelling to do with captain Thiago Silva leaving, it will take some special achievement to dethrone the capital side.

Olympique Lyonnais, however, are hoping to mount a challenge after being deprived of any European competition when they finished the previous season in seventh place.

Sports director Juninho said the club would “lose” talented midfielder Houssem Aouar and striker Moussa Dembele, though Lyon have plenty of home-grown talent, notably midfielder Rayan Cherki, who could step up this term.

Coach Rudi Garcia, however, conceded the staff would have “some psychological work to do” to quickly focus on domestic duties and avoid a bad start after being eliminated in the Champions League semi-finals by Bayern Munich on Wednesday.

Monaco, the only club to break PSG’s recent domination, hope they can find some stability after former Bayern coach Nico Kovac was appointed to lead the 2017 champions.

Marseille, runners-up last season, have found stability under Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas — who wanted to leave but said his players convinced him to stay.

“It was very hard for me to go back on my word after I had exposed myself publicly. The players, and only the players, were the key in making me change my mind,” he said.

Marseille, who are under the watch of UEFA after breaking financial fair play regulations, will hope to retain most of their top players after France winger Dimitri Payet extended his contract and agreed to a pay cut. 

And Rennes, who climbed onto the podium last season, will be hoping the prospect of their first-ever Champions League campaign can convince gifted teenage midfielder Eduardo Camavinga to stick around in Brittany.

(FRANCE 24 & REUTERS)

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