As French league starts new season, virus still a factor

PARIS (AP) — The coronavirus brought the last French league season to an early end, and it’s already having an impact on the start of the new campaign.

After Ligue 1 became the only one among Europe’s top five leagues to be called off because of the pandemic, it now becomes the first to start its new season on Friday.

But the lingering effects of the virus means it’s hardly business as normal.

The game that was originally meant to open the season — between Marseille and Saint-Etienne — had to be postponed because four Marseille players tested positive for COVID-19. And defending champion Paris Saint-Germain is absent — as it’s preparing for the final of the Champions League in Lisbon on Sunday.

The rescheduled opening game will instead feature Bordeaux hosting Nantes, two teams who only found out on Tuesday that the match was being moved forward.

But Nantes coach Christian Gourcuff said that’s something all teams have to be ready for, as long as the virus still threatens to cause postponements and cancellations.

“We need to adapt to the situation and be prepared for it, because it’s going to be like this for the whole season,” Gourcuff said. “It’s the same for Bordeaux, so on that front we’re equal. But if a lot of games are called off then we’ll never get out of this.”

Montpellier has also been hit hard by the virus with seven players contracting COVID-19. Striker Andy Delort announced on Wednesday that he tested positive.

There will be some fans in the stadiums, though, with up to 5,000 allowed into games under French government guidelines.

For Marseille, the only French team have won the Champions League back in 1993, the season would get off to an even worse start if PSG manages to beat Bayern Munich on Sunday to nullify the exclusive bragging rights that have been a source of pride for fans for decades.

PSG is the big favorite for another league title, but Marseille is still hoping to end its rival’s stranglehold on domestic titles. When last season was ended with 10 rounds remaining, PSG was 12 points ahead of second-place Marseille with one game in hand. PSG also won both domestic cups for a third domestic treble in six seasons.

Lyon will also be looking challenge the might of PSG — or at least secure a European place again — after its impressive run to the Champions League semifinals.

Lyon lost 3-0 to Bayern on Wednesday but missed out on European competition entirely after finishing seventh in the league and lost to PSG in the League Cup final.

Lyon beat Juventus and Manchester City in the knockout stages to show they can compete with Europe’s elite. But without the influx of cash from European competition, Lyon may have to sell highly-coveted midfielder Houssem Aouar and top scorer Moussa Dembélé. Big clubs have their sights set on them and selling both could earn Lyon more than 100 million euros ($118).

“There will be players leaving, maybe Houssem and Moussa,” Lyon’s sporting director Juninho said after the Bayern match. “But I’m not worried. The goal is get back into the Champions League.”

Should those two leave, Lyon will rely even more heavily on Dutch forward Memphis Depay. He was easily the club’s best player last season before a serious knee injury ruled him out for six months.

Marseille, meanwhile, has managed to keep its best players: playmaker Dimitri Payet and winger Florian Thauvin. Importantly, the cash-strapped club also persuaded coach André Villas-Boas — who is popular with players and fans alilke — to stay on for at least this season despite severe budget restrictions.

Rennes, Lille and Nice are the outsiders for a top-three finish this time.

Lille, which played the league’s last match on March 8 before it was canceled, faces Rennes on Saturday night.

But Nice could prove the more likely challenger following a strong summer recruitment push.

Coach Patrick Vieira has made some shrewd moves to bring in a mix of experience, proven ability and young talent for a modest total outlay of about 27 million euros ($32 million).

Flavius Daniliuc, a promising 19-year-old central defender joins from Bayern; attacking midfielder Rony Lopes — who once netted 17 goals in a season for Monaco — arrives on loan from Sevilla.

Striker Amine Gouiri joins from Lyon. The 20-year-old Gouiri was the tournament’s top scorer when he played for France at the European Under-17 Championship in 2017.

Shoring up central midfield — where Vieira excelled during his heyday with Arsenal and France — is Morgan Schneiderlin.

The 30-year-old Schneiderlin, who played 15 times for France, joined from Premier League club Everton in a bargain deal of 2.23 million euros ($2.64 million). Five years ago, Manchester United signed him from Southampton for 35 million euros ($41.5 million).

Having proved himself in England’s tough top league, he could become Vieira’s driving force.

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