Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughMontpellier and the European conundrum - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Montpellier and the European conundrum - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Montpellier and the European conundrum

Has Ligue 1 lost its habit of having minnows upsetting the giants? Most people seem surprised that Montpellier’s hard-working youth are winning games left, right and centre and currently leading the way just 3 games from the winter break. This league is no stranger to upsets and various sides have won the league (15 since 1933) but since Lyon’s dominance of 7 straight titles between 2002 and 2008, the contenders have been scarce. Bordeaux were the first side to take Lyon’s annual trophy away from them followed by Marseille and then Lille. Before Lyon’s dominance and after Marseille’s (illegitimate?) monopoly of 4 straight wins you had 6 different winners in the 8 leagues that took place between 1994 and 2001.

Of course, this pattern does French football no good in Europe as they are about to be overtaken in the UEFA coefficients by Portugal. Neither of the 3 Champions’ League clubs are certain to progress to the group stages and the 2 that are competing in the Europa League are either eliminated or about to be (Rennes are out and Paris Saint-Germain need a favour from Slovakia to progress to the knockout stages). If you want to be successful in Europe you need big clubs competing year after year in the same competitions. That way they get accustomed to playing 2 games a week (something Sochaux and Montpellier obviously didn’t fancy as they said goodbye to a European adventure by losing to minnows in the Europa League qualifying rounds this season and last respectively) and even though the learning curve is quite tough, experience brings good results (ask Marseille who were getting bottom two rankings of CL groups not so long ago but are quite close to pot 2 currently).

But credit and praise where it is due. Montpellier with René Girard at the helm are doing a fantastic job entertaining us since early August. Girard’s flexible 4-3-3 is one of the most feared in the country. The mixture of youth (Bocaly, Yanga-Mbiwa, Bedimo, Marveaux, Belhanda) and experience (Hilton, Dernis, Camara, Estrada, Jeunechamp) is working superbly helped by the small factor that their centre-forward is the League’s leading goal scorer (12 goals in 15 games), a shoe-in to make Laurent Blanc’s 23-man squad for Poland and Ukraine this summer and already has Premiership winks being made in his direction (Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew has been sending a scout to Montpellier games lately). Guillaume Hoarau was the sensation 2 years ago (he was in a much more mediatized club it has to be said), Hazard has confirmed he’ll be joining a big club this summer but this season apparently belongs to Olivier Giroud. Main asset: the air and laying off the ball for oncoming teammates. Think Andy Carroll but with footballing ability.

It is very refreshing to see a side with such a small budget (33M€, the 6th smallest one of the league) able to rival the megabucks petrodollars from Qatar and PSG. A big difference between watching the big money men and Montpellier is that the side from Langedoc-Roussillon play as a team, PSG are just very good football players put together on a pitch. This weekend was a perfect example: Montpellier hosted Lorient, a very hard team to play home or away, which they beat 4-0 (let us remember that PSG lost at home to Lorient 0-1 on the opening day) while PSG narrowly beat struggling Auxerre 3-2 and the only time they looked like scoring was when they were playing as a team. The speculation surrounding PSG coach Antoine Kombouaré’s future is doing PSG no good either but could work to Montpellier benefit.

But do we want Montpellier in the Champions’ League? Girard is happy to be playing a game a week even though a top 3 finish will bring a lot of benefits (cash) but also a lot of risks. Montpellier have never played in Europe’s premier competition – even though they have experience in the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup (in the 1990/91 season they reached the quarter-finals beaten by Manchester United 3-1 on aggregate) – and many French sides have looked quite at a loss in this competition down the years (the likes of Nantes, Lens, Bordeaux or PSG finishing bottom of their respective groups in the early 2000s spring to mind). But it will boast the club’s finances and be great for the community ahead of Euro 2016 I hear you saying. True even though Montpellier always ended in trouble after tasting European action. For instance, their last foray in the UEFA Cup back 1999/00 saw them relegated the same season. And let’s not forget that we are talking about a club that has been declared bankrupt 5 times (even though that shouldn’t happen nowadays as emblematic chairman Louis Nicollin has been at the helm since 1974 and has allegedly seen it all). Looking at the current squad, 11 of the 27 players is a youth product. Will the sensible Girard ditch this academic brilliance for one crazy summer spending in case of Champions’ League football? Doubtful.

You could hence be forgiven for lacking optimism when weighing Montpellier’s chances of success in next season’s Champions’ League. Then again, Cyprus nobodies APOEL Nicosia just made the CL knock-out stage with a game to spare, a feat the biggest budgets of Ligue 1 are incapable of doing…

Philip Bargiel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *