French Football - 3 Players to Watch in Ligue 1
French football is in the midst of a renaissance with attacking football and goals-a-plenty last season. Ligue 1 has a well-earned reputation as a hotbed of talent and has a seemingly unending ability to refresh its pool of quality players. As we head towards the new season, Memphis Depay, Marco Verratti and Mario Balotelli will be the pick of the bunch to watch.
Memphis Depay - Olympique Lyonnais
Dutch international Depay has quickly rebuilt his reputation at Olympique Lyonnais. If the 24-year-old lost some of his ‘next big thing’ tag during a disappointing spell at Manchester United, he’s making tongues wag again after playing a leading role in OL’s European Champions League qualification last season.
French football needs stars like Memphis in its top division, and perhaps the man himself needed Ligue 1 in return. The former PSV Eindhoven star wouldn’t be the first player from the Eredivisie to have found the going tough when making the transition from Dutch football to the English Premier League.
But he’s back and the Champions League will give Depay the opportunity to display his wares on the biggest stage in European Football. Man United fans recall his technical ability with a tinge of frustration. A tendency to linger on the ball too long and a lack of end product marred his spell at Old Trafford. There were continued questions about his application, but Memphis has developed his game in Ligue 1 to bring a new cutting edge in attack.
Depay ticks all the boxes and combines close control with direct running to bring an impressive contribution to the OL cause. He’s best when utilised as an inverted winger down the left, cutting inside to hurt defences.
Memphis scored 19 goals last term and provided almost as many assists. Now the star of an exciting young team, the Dutchman is thriving and seems to be coming of age.
Manchester United retain a buy-back option after selling him to Lyon in January 2017 and AC Milan are also said to have been monitoring his progress, but OL will be desperate to keep hold of Depay in order to push Paris St Germain hard for the Ligue 1 title.
Marco Verratti - Paris St Germain
On his day, Marco Verratti is the ultimate central midfielder, combining vision with an impressive passing range. The Paris Saint-Germain powerhouse possesses crazy successful pass stats with over 90% finding their target. The Italian brings a fiery passion for the game and is tough in the tackle while effectively screening the defenders behind him.
The 25-year-old endured a hit-and-miss 2017-18 with a hamstring injury curtailing his appearances. Occasional bouts of ill-temper rendered him as something of a pantomime villain and two sendings off and 11 bookings last season tell their own story.
But under the tutelage of new PSG boss Thomas Tuchel, a manager renowned for his old-school stance on disciplinary issues, Verratti has the opportunity to refine the edges of his fierce approach and enhance his reputation as one of Europe’s best defensive midfielders.
With Verratti at his best, PSG can challenge for the Champions League crown after being unable to progress further than the quarter-finals in the last twenty years. In his pomp, the Italian international is a commanding presence, safe in possession and with an unending determination to win the ball. He dominates midfield and any chink of weakness shown by an opponent brings out his devilish wrecking best.
Verratti has been likened to legendary midfield maestros Andrea Pirlo and Xavi, and Barcelona could yet lure him to the Nou Camp to become the successor to Andres Iniesta. Juventus and Manchester United would also snap PSG’s hands off to sign him this summer should they be able to prise him away from Paris. Verratti is one of the hottest properties in European football right now, so expect strong rumours of a departure as the transfer window draws to a close.
Mario Balotelli - Nice
Mario Balotelli may remain the sheer definition of enigmatic maverick, but he’s added consistency to his flair to chalk up 42 goals in just 64 appearances since signing for Nice in 2016.
He’s yet to agree a contract extension to remain with the side now managed by Patrick Vieira, but as French football appears to suit him perfectly, remaining in Ligue 1 makes sense. Balotelli has been linked with a summer switch to Olympique Marseille, and Arsenal are also credited with an interest.
The 27-year-old was recently recalled to the Italy side for the first time in four years and observers suggest Balotelli has finally matured and added a consistency to his game. The former Manchester City and Liverpool striker still brings with him a bit of baggage – four red cards in two years at Nice attest to that – but he largely keeps his head down these days and works hard.
Balotelli plays his football with strength and grace and makes scoring look effortless. He’s overcome the ‘troubled genius’ tag to repay the faith Nice have put in him. His positioning and ability to find a yard of space make him a nightmare for Ligue 1 defenders to play against, and he retains a power to his shot that few forwards can match. Balotelli brings bang and bling to European Football and he remains box-office.
Is Ballotelli can manage to settle down and find his form, then he might be good value at 16/1* to finish top scorer in Ligue 1.
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*Odds correct at the time of writing.
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