The 2017-18 Ligue 1 season will go down in the history books as the beginning of the Neymar era. It might not last long but the Brazilian star took French football to a new level when he joined Paris Saint-Germain last summer. Attendances are higher than ever; television figures are up; 1,033 goals were scored at a rate of 2.72 per match and plenty of young players shone throughout the campaign.
PSG were too strong in the end and had they not taken their foot of the gas, they would have beaten a few records. Nevertheless, the Parisians saw Edinson Cavani become the club’s top goalscorer ever, with 170 goals in 246 matches in all competitions, overtaking Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Behind the champions, it was a wonderful battle for second and third, settled only on the final matchday with Monaco and Lyon taking the two precious Champions League spots. Marseille finished fourth, four days after losing the Europa League final to Atletico Madrid.
Controversy was never far all season. Patrice Evra’s shame, referee Tony Chapron’s attempt to kick a Nantes player during their clash with PSG, the Neymar vs. Cavani penalty-gate, Lille fans attacking their own players …
Let’s try to remember the best, and a bit of the worst, of the season with the Ligue 1 awards:
Best player: Neymar
His stats are exceptional: 20 league games played, 19 goals and 13 assists, some incredible pieces of skill, nutmegs, rainbow flicks, no-look passes — the list goes on. His attitude, however, stank for most of the season with a lot of disrespect for the opposition and for Ligue 1. But he is a genius of a football player and better than anyone else in France.
Memphis Depay (19 goals, nine assists), Nabil Fekir (18 goals, six assists), Florian Thauvin (22 goals, 11 assists), Cavani (28 goals) and Mario Balotelli with his best ever domestic season (18 goals) also deserve a mention.
Most disappointing player: Patrice Evra
The 36-year-old was supposed to be the experienced player who would lead by example, the link between Marseille manager Rudi Garcia and the dressing room. Instead, it was a disaster. Evra was terrible on the pitch when he played and then had a crazy moment back in November when he high-kicked one of his own fans before a Europa League game away at Vitoria Guimaraes. He was banned for seven months and soon joined West Ham after his contract was terminated.
Best signing: Luiz Gustavo
The total opposite of Evra. At 30, the Brazilian left the Bundesliga and Wolfsburg for a big contract and responsibilities in Marseille. But he delivered. He was outstanding all season and quickly became the leader of the team on and off the pitch. He was the heart and soul of this Marseille side. Without him, they would not have had the season they had.
Biggest surprise: Rennes
For only the second time in the last 11 years, Rennes finished in the top five. They were 16th in October and 10th in November under Christian Gourcuff before Sabri Lamouchi replaced him and took the team to fifth and Europa League qualification. Rennes were the only team to have won in Marseille, in Lyon and in Paris this season.
Must do better: Lille
It had all started so well and looked promising with a 3-0 win over Nantes on the opening weekend. Marcelo Bielsa and his youngsters were supposed to be the ones to watch this season. Instead, it was a mess. Bielsa was sacked, the Ultras attacked their own players and the team managed to stay up, just about, with a game to spare.
Best goal: Nabil Fekir
For the second season in a row, a Lyon player wins this award and for the second season in a row it is thanks to a lob from the halfway line. After Depay last season, it is Fekir this time, against Bordeaux, earlier in the campaign and with his wrong foot too. Benjamin Jeannot’s amazing volley against PSG, Malcom’s strike at Dijon, and Giovanni Lo Celso’s delightful chip at Lille also deserve a lot of credit.
Best game: Marseille 2-3 Lyon
The game that changed everything. Week 30, March 18. Marseille, third in the table, were five points clear of Lyon in fourth when the two teams met at the Stade Velodrome for a legendary “Olympico.” Marseille went 1-0 up, then Lyon hit back, scoring twice. Kostas Mitroglou looked like he would be the hero with an 84th minute equaliser, but in a crazy end to the game, Depay won it for Lyon before it all kicked off with a fight between the players.
Prediction for next season
Monaco will lose at least Thomas Lemar and Fabinho to other clubs but will keep rebuilding. They will hope their next generation — Youri Tielemans, Keita Balde, Rony Lopes, Moussa Sylla, Pietro Pellegri, Adama Diakhaby — improve.
Lyon will also lose their best player in Fekir. However, if they can keep everyone else and spend the Fekir money wisely, they could be PSG’s closest challengers. It will be fascinating to see if Houssem Aouar, Tanguy Ndombele and Ferland Mendy can confirm the promise they showed this season.
PSG will, of course, open a new chapter of their history with Thomas Tuchel as their manager. You can expect the champions to be even more competitive and dominant next season, especially if Neymar stays.
Marseille came so close to a wonderful season but ended up losing everything. However, there is so much to build on for next term. They should keep their main men and if Garcia and sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta sign the right players, l’OM will be dangerous.
Bordeaux under Gus Poyet could well be the best of the rest next season with Nice, who are looking for a new manager to succeed Lucien Favre, and Rennes if they can continue their progress under Lamouchi.
Let’s hope for a top Champions League campaign from PSG, Monaco and Lyon. France will have three clubs in the group stages of the competition for only the second time in six years thanks to Atletico Madrid’s win in the Europa League.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.