18.12.2013 11:47 h

Football: Monaco emerge as only threat to dominant PSG

Paris Saint-Germain began what they hope will be an era of dominance in French football in 2013, a year that was also marked by the return of Monaco as a force and the national team's dramatic qualification for the World Cup.

Nineteen years after they were last crowned champions, PSG won their third title and their first trophy since the Qatari takeover at the Parc des Princes in 2011 under Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti.

The capital club's strength compared to the rest of the country was frightening, epitomised by player of the year Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

His goals helped the side reach the Champions League quarter-finals, where they bowed out on away goals to Barcelona, and his impact was such that the verb 'to zlatan' became commonly used slang in French.

Glamour was added during the second half of last season by David Beckham's cameo at the Parc des Princes, the veteran Englishman finishing his glittering career with a Ligue 1 winner's medal.

In a touch of class, Beckham promised to donate his salary to a local children's hospital, but PSG's success came at a big cost to owners Qatar Sports Investments, who spent huge sums building a formidable squad.

As sports daily L'Equipe said: "Never has a French league title come at such a price for the owner of a club".

And turmoil soon followed. Ancelotti left for Real Madrid, while sporting director Leonardo departed too after being banned from all official functions for 14 months for shoving a referee.

Ancelotti was replaced by former France coach Laurent Blanc, who was considered to be little more than a stop-gap when appointed but who has succeeded in further improving the team.

Few would bet against them winning a second successive title and making another big impression in the Champions League in the New Year.

The year saw other grand old names enjoy success, with Bordeaux winning the French Cup and Saint-Etienne ending a 32-year trophy drought when they lifted the League Cup.

But Monaco now appear to be the only realistic threat to PSG's dominance. Promoted back to Ligue 1 after a two-year absence, their billionaire Russian owner Dmitry Rybolovlev splashed the cash, including an outlay of 60 million euros ($82.4m) on Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid.

That deal was briefly a French league record until PSG hit back with the 64 million-euro recruitment of Edinson Cavani from Napoli, and a two-way fight for supremacy was underway amid concerns that Ligue 1 was about to become as lopsided a contest as the Barcelona and Real Madrid-dominated Spanish league.

Monaco's rivals have set about challenging their right to benefit from the favourable tax laws in the principality, that particular imbalance having been made all the more acute by the French government's introduction of a 75 percent tax rate on earnings over a million euros which almost led to a strike by angry clubs.

But, as that row drags on, the French have good reason to be proud of their national team again. Didier Deschamps's side toiled for much of 2013, but their remarkable recovery from a 2-0 first-leg defeat to Ukraine in their World Cup qualifying play-off in November raised spirits.

Les Bleus won the second leg 3-0 at the Stade de France to book their ticket to the 2014 finals.

Now there is hope that a team featuring Ballon d'Or candidate Franck Ribery can make an impression in Brazil as they build towards Euro 2016, which France will host.

By then, some of the exciting young stars who helped France win this year's under-20 World Cup in Turkey, including Paul Pogba, Lucas Digne and Florian Thauvin, should be key players in the full national team.

No wonder French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet felt compelled to describe the end of 2013 as "a new beginning" for the sport in the country.