Montpellier: A lesson on how the underdog can triumph against all odds

Taken from The Globe and Mail

A £1.7 million transfer of Henri Bedimo from RC Lens of Ligue 1 to Montpellier of French Ligue 2 last summer was instantly forgettable, lost amongst the £10 million euros spent on Inter Milan’s Thiago Motta by the newly oil-rich Paris St Germain or their £36 million euros spent on Palermo’s Javier Pastore which smashed the French record for a transfer fee. 

Over at champions Lille, Joe Cole was making his loan move across the channel to much fanfare and surprise, but as the summer rolled on, the left-back Bedimo remained little Montpellier’s only summer fee paid transfer. Nine months later and the humble, historic club from southern France are now league champions.

It has been a remarkable journey that culminated in fittingly bizarre circumstances at Auxurre where the game was suspended at length twice for crowd disruption. Needing to avoid defeat to ensure their first ever L’Hexagoal, they fell behind only for John Utaka, formerly of Portsmouth, to score twice amongst all the confusion playing itself out in the stands to land a fairy-tale trophy. 

If you had bet on this sequence of events at the start of the season, you would have got odds at 80/1 on Rene Girard’s men winning the title such was the outlandish nature of the triumph.

Paris St Germain pushed Montpellier right until the final day but ultimately paid for a year of transition in which the QSI powered investment saw them become Europe’s biggest spenders last summer, bringing in no less than 13 players and losing ten. To compound the unrest, managerAntoine Kombouare was sacked in December to give way to former Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti. 

Not that Kombouare was doing too badly with just 3 losses in the first 19 games, they had a minor blip in November in which a draw and two defeats saw them relinquish top spot, but they had the summit back when Kombouare was dismissed on the 22nd, just before the French winter break. 

However, the 48 year old was at the mercy of elimination from the Europa League and the French Cup and most importantly, perhaps cynically, he wasn’t the big name that usually corresponds to these big investment take-overs; think Manchester City with Mark Hughes. 

Kombouare was being undermined as rumours of Sports Director at the Parc Des Princes, former AC Milan coach Leonardo, was holding talks with Carlo Ancelotti on a regular basis. He was a stellar name, a former Champions League winner, so out went Kombouare.

Meanwhile, Montpellier were going about business with a quiet efficiency in the face of possible set-backs. A surprise 2-4 defeat away at Evian TG, coming after a loss to Valenciennes and a home draw with Toulouse, saw them into the winter break in a run of patchy form. 

Questions were asked of Montpellier’s duration once the league kick-started itself back up in January only to see an eight match unbeaten run, including a vital 2-2 draw away at main rivals PSG, answer the doubters emphatically. 

Only two losses occurred since the festive rest, and so Montpellier, with eccentric owner Louis Nicollin continuously mocking his own team, refusing to believe the possibility right until the very end, wrapped up the league title in deserved fashion.

Credit must go to Girard, to fashion a side capable of winning a major title on such  minuscule resources when contrasted to the fortunes of at least three other clubs in Ligue 1 has been a drastic achievement for the humble coach who possesses a rather uninspiring coaching past, the French assistant manager’s job being arguably his most significant post. 

Girard… lead the title charge admirably (Taken from Today’s Zaman)

But he has negotiated his squad through testing times also, most notably a well-documented fall-out between the two top scorers, Oliver Giroud and Younes Belhanda, after a penalty incident in a potentially damaging 2-2 draw with that troublesome Evian TG, which was impressively put to one side for the successful assault on the miraculous trophy.

It has been this togetherness that Girard has installed in his team that has been the hallmark of their success however. Whilst PSG have struggled to implement a fluid attacking line through the individual quality of Pastore, Nene and Jeremy Menez, and Lille have been too often relying on the coveted talent of 21 goal Eden Hazard , Montpellier have seen goals flow through top scorer Giroud who also finished on 21, Belhanda got 12 and John Utaka netted 7. Souleymane Camara managed 9. 

It is Giroud who spearheads the attack ahead of Camara, Utaka and Belhanda, the latter had been tipped to follow Lille’s precocious Eden Hazard by owner Nicollin to much mockery, but that prophecy seems not so fantastical now. 

Giroud and Belhanda… pivotal in league triumph (Taken from Vavel)

But it is not a championship winning team that Girard has forged, for these players composed the squad that limped to a mid-table finish the year previous in Ligue 1, it is a championship winning side based on a magnificent amount of hard work and graft, embodied by their battling midfield enforcer, Jamel Saihi. 

Girard’s men haven’t registered as many goals as PSG or Lille but did finish on the least amount of goals conceded with 34. Pragmatism is a big part of the Montpellier set-up and a defence marshalled by captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa has been solid with help from the resurgent Souleymane Diawara and the other centre-half, Brazilian Hilton. 

It is a well-balanced, talented squad that has been made by Girard with a fraction of the resources available to the teams he has triumphed over in this year’s Le Championnat, with a fine technical ability based on a strong graft and fortitude that will serve them well in next year’s Champions League. 

For the little guy, there will be no more fitting representative than France’s cash-disobeying champions.

Written by Adam Gray
Follow me on Twitter @AdamGray1250
Check out his wonderful blog, The Football Brain

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