Considering their annual budget is little more than the price Paris Saint-Germain paid to lure Javier Pastore to the Parc des Princes last summer, that Montpellier are competing stride for stride with the cash rich capital club is impressive.
On 11th March, Kevin Gameiro struck late on for Carlo Ancelotti’s side at Dijon to extend PSG’s lead over Montpellier to four points. Gameiro’s goal, a minute into stoppage time, evoked one of football’s favourite cliches – the team that scores late on showing the character required to win the title.
Yet the same could be said of La Pallaide after their response later that same evening. A team which has lost the lead in the title race the previous weekend, by struggling at Dijon too, ultimately drawing, may have been expected to be feeling the pressure and lacking in the confidence built up in previous months. But Rene Girard’s men showed composure and no little skill, running out 3-0 winners against Caen, even if they left it late to secure the points through Souleymane Camara and Olivier Giroud – Ligue 1’s top scorer with 17 goals.
For such a young team, Montpellier’s maturity has been a constant in this season’s success. Having matched PSG through the opening half of the season whilst more illustrious names – Lyon, Marseille and reigning champions Lille – fell by the wayside, it was felt to be simply a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ Montpellier’s title challenge dipped.
Instead, the south coast side have become stronger since January. La Palliade started 2012 in brilliant style, defeating Lyon, Nice, Brest and Ajaccio to notch up four straight Ligue 1 victories before travelling to Paris to take on title rivals PSG. A win would have taken Girard’s side top, and for much of the game it seemed as though that would happen. The better team in the opening stages, Montpellier were unlucky to fall behind to a free kick from former Chelsea man Alex, yet showed character to equalise on the stroke of half time through Moroccan starlet Younes Belhanda. Forward John Utaka then put the visitors in front before Ancelotti’s side scored a barely merited equaliser in the dying minutes through Guillaume Hoarau.
Montpellier may have missed the chance to go above the capital club, but Girard’s side proved something to the rest of France that night. They were good enough – they had the nerve, not to mention the quality, to more than match the title favourites. The south coast club then ended the brilliant run of Bordeaux, who were unbeaten in the league this calendar year, and had defeated Lille and Lyon before meeting Montpellier. A recent 1-0 loss to Nancy on 17th March might have dampened matters somewhat, but PSG still hold just a two-point lead in a race which is going to the wire.
That La Palliade are even in the Ligue 1 title race is remarkable enough, let alone that the side are showing the kind of form, skill and character that wins championships. This is a team that have never won the league before, have spent much of the last decade in Ligue 2 and are in only their third year back in the top flight.
Though Montpellier have a fairly wealthy owner in Louis Nicollin, who has been at the club since 1954, he refuses to splash the cash in the style of PSG’s Qatari owners, who have pledged to invest €100M a year to make the capital outfit successful.
As a result, Montpellier’s success owes much to their youth system, with a number of players who helped the team win the Coupe Gambardella in 2009 (the French Under-19 cup) playing key roles. As well as Belhanda, impressive defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, midfield creators Jamel Saihi and Remy Cabella have been relied upon by Girard, as has goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourdren.
Signings have also been intelligent and considered; as well as Clairefontaine graduate Giroud, bought from Tours, there is midfielder Marco Estrada, signed from current Copa Sudamericana champions Universidad de Chile last season, while the equally important Joris Marveaux was brought from Clermont.
Now the club’s top players are being linked with moves away, with Giroud predictably the target of big teams across the continent. It would be impressive if Montpellier could keep hold of the France international and the precociously talented Belhanda.
Yet before then, there is the business end of the season to tackle and La Pallaide arguably have the tougher run-in. They entertain Champions League hopefuls Saint-Etienne before visiting Marseille, while tricky trips to Toulouse, Lorient and Rennes are all to come, as well as a clash with Lille on the penultimate weekend of the season. Everything points to a dramatic and glorious failure, but Lille were in a similar position last year when battling Marseille. For Rudi Garcia’s side, it was a strong squad, luck with injuries and the form of Eden Hazard which propelled Les Dogues to the title. For Montpellier, the same ingredients, with Hazard swapped for Giroud, could see similarly unlikely champions crowned in France this season.
But the ever entertaining Nicollin will not pile pressure on Girard as the title race heats up. Indeed his only fear is “that we might qualify for the Europa League. That would really annoy me”, explained Nicollin “What a rubbish competition!", he added.
It is safe to say the Montpellier supremo will not expecting any Christmas cards from UEFA president Michel Platini, but he does have a message designed to pressure his rivals. “If I was at PSG, Lyon, Lille or Rennes, and Montpellier finished as champions, I would want to stab myself in the backside, what a disgrace that would be."
Nicollin may have a point, but if Montpellier were to win the league, few would agree with him.