Last season in Ligue Un, Paris Saint-Germain began as clear favourites. Spending half the money in the world will have that effect. But as it turned out, the well-drilled, tight-knit club in Montpellier proved superior; their small squad's morale had an alchemic effect on players such as John Utaka, while at the same time Olivier Giroud and Younes Belhanda were revelatory.
Montpellier deserved their title but without them -- and without Giroud -- the standard in Ligue Un meant that this season, few predicted anything other than a PSG victory. Given they had signed Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it was safe to assume that their quality, regardless of form, would carry them to the title if the remainder of the league remained as poor.
But surprisingly (and pleasingly) the quality of the title race and the general standard of football in Ligue Un has been competitive and exciting. Rather than being cowed by the challenge from Paris, the other clubs appear to have redoubled their efforts in chasing them. It might be that Ligue Un lost relatively few players of worth compared to last year, or it might be that last year showed others that -- given you only play PSG twice -- beating other clubs is a perfectly valid way to compete for the league.
Whatever the reasons, things are far tighter in 2012-13 and PSG, Marseille and Lyon will all be disappointed if they fail to maintain the chase in the remaining 19 games: All begin the new year tied on 38 points.
Inevitably, Paris Saint-Germain will be considered favourites. Despite starting the season so badly that Lorient's Jeremie Aliadiere scored against them twice, they start 2013 joint top of the league and might be the only French team that finishes the transfer window stronger when it ends. The deal made to bring Lucas Moura to Paris was finalised in August last year, but he is now with his new teammates. Close to joining Manchester United, he is a player of such quality and potential that when facing Moura and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, most French teams will expect to concede.
Add to this the improving defensive performance by PSG, bolstered by the experience and innate talent of Thiago Silva, the ever-better Blaise Matuidi in defence and Maxwell combining with Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left wing, it's clear they are the most talented team in the league. Better yet, the team's one troublemaker, sulking attacker Nene, might not finish the transfer window in Paris. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 20 goals in 22 games and if he continues in such a manner then the title is assuredly his -- maybe then he will deign to share some of the credit.
While PSG's place at the top was predictable, their great rivals Marseille have surprised greatly. Last season they were a rabble. They lost Didier Deschamps to France, and what did they do to improve? They signed Joey Barton! (He promptly picked up the team's player of the month award for December.)
Yet even that couldn't hide that they began 2012-13 with a dangerously thin squad, something that will be exacerbated if Loic Remy does indeed join Spurs. What remains is a less experienced squad, but with Andre-Pierre Gignac in the best form of his Marseille career (8 goals in 14 appearances) and Andre Ayew left out of the Africa Cup of Nations, their attack is not a weak spot. The biggest threat to their challenge remains a squad light on bodies, but new manager Elie Baup has improved morale in a squad previously happy to tear rillettes off each other. After all, if Joey Barton isn't acting up, then something has to be going right.
PSG's strongest rivals, though, are Lyon, also on 38 points. The biggest change there has been the addition of a resurgent Steed Malbranque. Last year he joined St Etienne, and for reasons that are not at all clear, left after only a month. Instead of retiring -- he's 33 -- he found himself starting this season with Lyon.
Lyon have not won the league since 2008. Having previously maintained league domination while overseeing the profitable exits of players like Florent Malouda, Karim Benzema and Michael Essien, the team has struggled in recent years. Last summer, Hugo Lloris was the big name player to leave, joining Spurs. Despite this, Lyon have been inspired by Malbranque in midfield, who is playing so well there are calls that he be included in the national squad. Additionally, Bafetimbi Gomis has played with an efficiency that suggests he has finally matured, making the most of Lyon's new creative spark. If they can get through the winter with reinforcements, or at least to suffer no more significant losses, there is little reason why Lyon might not find themselves back in winning ways.
Further down the table, Lille might consider themselves to have a distant chance of success. They lost Eden Hazard following his incredible journey of tedium that ended at Chelsea. Having replaced him with Marvin Martin, they also saw Joe Cole -- whose achievements at Lille have been overplayed by the English media -- depart when ideally they would have retained him. There has been a significant loss this winter, though, as the penetrative right back Mathieu Debuchy has left to find out if he's as able as Danny Simpson at Newcastle. They are extremely unlikely to succeed this year, but they will provide a severely testing obstacle to any teams aiming to take three points from them.
What of last year's champions? Well, they don't have a chance. They sold their top-scoring striker Giroud, who is currently enjoying a mildly underwhelming start to his Arsenal career, but that is not their only problem. Manager Rudi Garcia hasn't yet committed to a contract extension. Their playmaker, the exciting and violent Younes Belhanda, will probably play his first league game of 2013 for Spurs or Fenerbahce. Add to this the year-long suspension of Cyril Jeunechamp for his assault of a journalist and it becomes evident that Louis Nicollin's club will not repeat last year's miracle.
As the league cranks into action again this weekend, Lyon, PSG and Marseille are all capable of taking Ligue Un. Obviously PSG have the advantage that comes with absurd amounts of money, but last year demonstrated that it takes more than that to triumph. Three strikers -- Gomis, Gignac and Ibrahimovic -- are leading the chase for their clubs, but it will be the strongest squad that can expect to finish top.
Alexander Netherton edits the Surreal Football Magazine and can be found on Twitter here.