Olympique de Marseille and Toulouse bring up the curtain on the 2018/19 Ligue 1 Conforama season on Friday with both teams seeking to improve on last term's showing.
Olympique de Marseille - Toulouse FC
Just a point was all that separated Marseille from a place in the top three last season and with it a welcome return to UEFA Champions League football this season.
The team's impressive but ultimately unsuccessful run to the UEFA Europa League final and their determined league showing suggests they have the tools to again push hard for a top-three finish, though this time, they will be hoping it ends more happily.
If they are to do that, Florian Thauvin will need to repeat his exceptional 2017/18 that brought him a career-high 22 goals, 11 assists and — to cap it all — a FIFA World Cup winner's medal. Though he did not play more than a bit-part role in helping France scale the summit of world football, the boost his self-confidence received in Russia surely bodes well for OM.
His short summer holidays mean, however, he is unlikely to play much of a part against Toulouse as he only returned to training earlier this week along with fellow 'mondialistes' Steve Mandanda, Adil Rami and Duje Caleta-Car, who is Marseille's major summer signing so far.
The Croatia international centre-back joins from RB Salzburg with high hopes he and Rami will forge an impenetrable pairing at the heart of the OM defence, though their absence from the opening game of the season — and Rolando's serious Achilles injury that will sideline him until December — means coach Rudi Garcia will have to improvise.
Garcia: 'Wake up quickly'
The former LOSC Lille and AS Roma boss will be all the more concerned given his team's pre-season preparations during which they won just one of seven friendlies, and were beaten 5-2 by English Premier League side Bournemouth in their final warm-up outing last weekend.
"I'm disappointed with the team defensively," explained Garcia, who saw Valère Germain and Rémy Cabella score for his side. "Going forward, things went rather well, but defensively we're going to have to tighten up. It's not a problem of the system, but of aggression and attitude. Physically, we were struggling whereas Bournemouth seemed ready for their league to start. It's a good slap in the face and we're going to have to wake up quickly."
Those sentiments will be echoed in south-west France where Toulouse came uncomfortably close to playing Domino's Ligue 2 football this season. Only a relegation/promotion play-off win over AC Ajaccio preserved their top-flight status after a disastrous second half of the campaign.
In response, they have been busy over the summer. Goalkeeper Alban Lafont has left, but Baptiste Reynet — one of Ligue 1 Conforama's most consistent performers in recent seasons — has arrived from Dijon FCO while Max-Alain Gradel has made his move to the Ville Rose permanent after his loan spell last season.
"We'll surely be pigeon-holed as a team that will be fighting against relegation, which is normal given what happened last season. But I'm bursting with ambition. When you start a competition, you always aim to finish as high as possible. We're not setting ourselves any limits," explained Alain Casanova, who left the club in March 2015 after nearly seven years at the head of the first team.
"We still have quite a lot of things to improve, to bring in. You can't have everything in place in terms of new playing style, new training methods and squad unity in five weeks, that's clear. Having said that, I'm really happy with the squad's attitude. The squad is very committed, they listen, and they are dynamic. But now the league starts, and it's going to be something different."
Marseille: Y.Pelé – Sakai, Kamara, Luiz Gustavo, Amavi – B.Sarr, M.Lopez, M.Sanson, Njie – Payet (cap.) – Germain
Toulouse: Reynet – Michelin, Amian, Jullien, Moubandje – Bostock, Cahuzac – Dossevi, M.Garcia, Gradel (cap.) – Leya Iseka