New coach, fresh ructions in the squad and the usual title to defend. When Paris Saint-Germain begin their competitive season on Saturday at home to Lorient, it can hardly be with clear, focused minds.
France’s Ligue 1 automatically installs them as favourites to collect a 10th title in 12 years, but finds itself most intrigued by the various confrontations between PSG’s dressing-room and boardroom.
Chief among them, the Kylian Mbappe stand-off, a soap opera previously rehearsed two summers ago when he was subject of a vast bid from Real Madrid; PSG turned that one down, later making Mbappe the best-paid footballer in the world.
This summer’s impasse has Mbappe refusing to renew that contract, PSG alarmed he could leave for free when his deal expires next June and convinced he has a private arrangement with Madrid for 2024 – or sooner if Madrid show a willingness to pay PSG €150 million-plus before the end of August.
Mbappe has been training apart from the first team. His employers have effectively put him up for sale. Unless there is a sudden thawing of relations, he is not in contention to start against Lorient, as PSG begin yet another "new era" with Luis Enrique, the former Barcelona and Spain head coach, making his bow on a Ligue 1 touchline.
The Spaniard, a successor to Christophe Galtier and appointed barely a year after Mauricio Pochettino departed, has an authoritarian streak, which should suit a club where players flex their muscles ostentatiously and where the president, Nasser Al Khelaifi, routinely insists the indulgences of superstars must be curbed.
Mbappe’s exclusion from the club’s pre-season tour of Asia and from main training sessions were designed to demonstrate that. So was the fine and suspension imposed on Lionel Messi at the tail-end of last season, when Messi missed practice.
Messi promptly left, his two-year contract expired, bound for Inter Miami. And more disruption threatens to usher in the Luis Enrique tenure, with informed reports that Neymar, a figurehead for PSG’s ambition and aspirations since 2017, would like to depart.
Finding a suitor who will stump up a fee even 30 per cent as large as the record-breaking €222 million PSG paid for the Brazilian looks tough, let alone one prepared to match the 31-year-old’s high salary.
Finding replacements for at least two parts of the "MNM" trio, the glitzy front three of Messi, Neymar and Mbappe that took PSG to their last two league crowns, is well under way.
The club expect to confirm the signing of winger Ousmane Dembele from Barcelona before the weekend and have announced the capture of Goncalo Ramos, fresh from his breakthrough year at Benfica – 27 club goals – and with the Portugal national team.
The 22-year-old’s deal is initially on loan, with PSG obliged to convert it into a permanent move for a fee that could rise to €80 million.
A sound investment, said Al Khelaifi, with a remark designed for longer-serving PSG players to hear. “He’s a fantastic young international, super-motivated to fight for the team,” said the PSG president. “That’s the sort of player we want for the future of our great institution.”
Some experienced battlers have been added to the PSG defence, in Lucas Hernandez and Milan Skriniar and €60 million spent on reinforcing the base of Luis Enrique’s midfield with Manuel Ugarte, the 22-year-old Uruguayan, signed from Portugal’s Sporting.
As for any serious chasers of the serial Ligue 1 champions, they must aspire to the determination Lens showed last season, the northern club finishing a point behind PSG. The market took note of Lens’s talent, and with midfielder Seko Fofana (to Al Nassr) and striker Lois Openda (RB Leipzig) both sold, the capacity of Lens, who were only promoted from Ligue 2 in 2020, to maintain another domestic challenge and a Champions League campaign will be severely tested.
Fresh resources could make others just as upwardly mobile. Strasbourg, with Patrick Vieira installed as head coach, are now majority owned by the same consortium who have Chelsea as their principal football property.
Olympique Lyonnais, who came under US ownership last December, will for the first time in 36 years start a season without the influential Jean-Michel Aulas as president, amid cautious hope that a podium finish in the league, a silver or a bronze, might be there for the seizing.
Olympique Marseille, thrust into a Champions League play-off against Panathinaikos on Wednesday thanks to their bronze medal in last season’s Ligue 1, are, like PSG, under a third head coach in as many summers.
Like PSG they have turned to a Spaniard, Marcelino, who is armed with a trio of potentially exciting attacking arrivals from English football. Senegalese forwards Iliman Ndiaye and Ismaila Sarr have joined from Sheffield United and Watford, to partner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Aubameyang, formerly of Saint-Etienne, is back in French football after a decade away, at Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea. A ten years in which he has watched from a distance big-budget PSG establish a firm grip on the league – and on most of the off-field headlines.