Reims, Nîmes back in the elite
By A. Scott
Two famous old names return to the elite in 2018-19, with Nîmes Olympique and former champions Stade de Reims both bringing their famous red-and-white jerseys back to Ligue 1 Conforama.
Stade de Reims come back up as record-breaking Domino's Ligue 2 champions, and can look forward to top-flight football again, after last gracing the highest level in 2015-16.
A return to the glory days?
Six-time champions in the early post-war era, and twice European Cup runners-up to Real Madrid in the late 1950s, Reims had been away for more than 30 years before resurfacing in 2012. They dropped back down after four years in the top tier, but promotion last season was their reward for maintaining their ambition.
David Guion took over last year from Michel Der Zakarian at the Stade Auguste-Delaune and oversaw a stunning run to the title, with Reims going top in mid-September and never relinquishing first place.
They ended up with a record 88 points, and a record 28 wins. It was very much a collective success, with four Reims players ending up in the Ligue 2 team of the season.
That quartet was comprised of defenders Yunis Abdelhamid and Julian Jeanvier, Brazilian creator Diego Rigonato - Domino's Ligue 2 Player of the Season - and Argentine forward Pablo Chavarria. Another forward, Jordan Siebatcheu, was their top scorer with 17 goals.
However, Siebatcheu has since been sold to Stade Rennais FC. After six seasons at the club, Diego has departed as well, moving to the United Arab Emirates, while Jeanvier crossed the Channel to join Brentford. In addition, captain Danilson Da Cruz left for AS Nancy Lorraine. That means Guion - voted Domino's Ligue 2 Coach of the Season - needs to build a new-look team capable of keeping the club safe from the threat of relegation.
"The club's development has not been slowed down by these two years in Ligue 2, which is quite remarkable when you look at what has happened at several other clubs who have been relegated," said president Jean-Pierre Caillot in the spring. "With the arrival of all these foreign investors, I think there will be six or seven clubs who are untouchable. But I think it is much harder to try to win promotion than it is to avoid relegation."
Nîmes are back!
Meanwhile, there is enormous excitement in the southern city of Nîmes, with Les Crocodiles returning to the top flight for the first time in quarter of a century.
Nîmes were Coupe de France finalists in 1996, but you have to go back much further to find the last time they were a genuine force. They were top-flight runners-up in 1972, having also finished second to Reims in 1958 and 1960. They have a proud footballing history, but that did not weigh too heavily on Bernard Blaquart's team as they went second in late November and held that position until the end.
Fans at the Stade des Costières were treated to some thrilling attacking play, with Umut Bozok ending up as the top scorer in Domino's Ligue 2 with 24 goals after making the step up from the third tier.
Laurent Blanc and Éric Cantona played their football for Nîmes in the early 1990s, but it is difficult for the club to attract players of that level now. They must battle to keep hold of Bozok, having already lost Alioui for several months to a serious knee injury that ruled him out of the World Cup.
Interesting signings have been made, with Paul Bernardoni in on loan from Girondins de Bordeaux after being named the best goalkeeper in Ligue 2 last season with Clermont Foot. Midfielder Moustapha Diallo joins from EA Guingamp and brings a wealth of experience with him.
The step up will be a huge challenge, but Blaquart - who has extended his contract to 2023 - will stay true to his principles.
Feeet on the ground
"We are preparing for a very difficult season. We won't have the same results as last year, we know that. We will be among the favourites to go down so we need to be ready to fight," he said. "It will be a journey of discovery, a new world. It will be really difficult to attack high up the pitch against Paris or Marseille, but attacking football is our hallmark."