Rarely has a team come so far, so fast, to win such an unlikely league title. Montpellier, promoted from Ligue 2 just three seasons ago, finished three points off relegation last season, and during the summer sold their best defender. The club also have only the 13th biggest budget in Ligue 1, and were the second least prolific scorers in the league last year; so without any real investment in pre-season, few would even have predicted a European challenge, let alone a league title. The consensus was for mid-table toil – Rene Girard’s men exploded that thought.
Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain, acquired by the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, embarked on Europe’s largest spending spree of the summer. Marseille, who finished second last season, strengthened. Though champions Lille lost Gervinho and Yohan Cabaye, as well as Adil Rami, they replaced all three and, led by Eden Hazard, looked formidable. And there was also Lyon.
An early season victory for Montpellier against Lille was notable, but hardly had observers rushing to predict a title charge. Yet Girard’s side enjoyed a superb start to the campaign, with forward Olivier Giroud suddenly realising the potential he showed as a youngster at the famed Clairefontaine academy. At the half-way stage, Montpellier were in touch with PSG, but the leaders looked set to march on to win Ligue 1. It was assumed, naturally, that Montpellier could not sustain their impressive form. Their exuberant owner, Louis Nicollin, even said that if he was the man in charge at PSG, Lille, Lyon or one of the other traditional title challengers, he would ‘stick a sausage up his backside’ if a team like Montpellier beat them to the title.
There was the feeling at this point that this was PSG’s time and their title. The idea that a team with such scant resources could come in and steal the league from a side bankrolled so heavily from Qatar is one which romantics would identify with, but cynics would dismiss as impossible. And usually the latter view would be right.
Yet PSG’s owners made the decision, based more on global image than football, to fire Antoine Kombouare and replace him with Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian then tinkered with the team he inherited, rotating the defenders until they began to concede more than PSG’s forwards could score at the other end. And the Parc des Princes side’s ability to find the back of the net was hampered by Ancelotti’s preference to play three defensively minded midfielders, rather than the two employed by Kombouare. The front four of Kevin Gameiro, Javier Pastore, Nene and Jeremy Menez became a front three; though towards the end of the campaign, Ancelotti’s decision to field Nene, Pastore and Menez, without a recognised striker, was one of the season’s more interesting tactical innovations, and the Parisians were in free scoring form as a result.
It was too little, too late, however. Montpellier swooped in and stole the title that PSG were meant to win, and almost without ever intending to either. For most of the season no one thought they would go the distance, and neither did the Stade de la Mosson outfit. A 2-2 draw with PSG at the Parc des Princes earlier this year was a moral victory for Girard’s men, who were the better team; it also signalled they could actually win the title.
But the south coast side insisted that they would be happy with the top three, which would be a remarkable achievement and mean Champions League football. It was almost as though being such a long shot to begin with meant that, with a third of the season to go, Montpellier could lose all their remaining games and still end up finishing higher than was have expected at the start of the season. With nothing to lose, Girard’s troops went from strength to strength, and attacking midfielder Younes Belhanda in particular was in electric form in the final weeks. The side also had the talented Remy Cabella in support, whilst at the back Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa was a revelation, another promising youngster playing with a maturity beyond his years, as was Geoffrey Jourdren in goal.
When it seemed as though Montpellier had finally cracked in the dying weeks of the season, they showed their mettle. With Ancelotti’s team displaying good late season form, and Montpellier facing a tough run of fixtures, Girard’s men demonstrated their resolve by grinding out a 1-0 win at Toulouse. Then they drew 2-2 at home to Evian, with Belhanda sent off before he fell out with Giroud. Had La Pallaide finally lost it? No was the emphatic answer. Though Belhanda missed the last three games of the season, Girard’s side showed the grit and determination they had forged through their first two seasons back in Ligue 1 to win 2-0 at high flying Rennes and then score a last minute winner against champions Lille last week.
As the final matchday dawned, and Montpellier needed to avoid defeat, their determination was on show again as, 1-0 down at relegated Auxerre, they drew level. A twist ensued however as the home fans, angry at their relegation from Ligue 1 for the first time, started throwing objects onto the pitch, causing a 10 minute delay. Then after the restart flares were thrown, causing a second hold up. And with PSG having won 2-1 at Lorient well before the end of the Montpellier game, Girard’s team had all the pressure of knowing that any slip-up meant a finish of second. That was not something the south coast team were prepared to contemplate, digging into their reserves to find a second goal to win the game, and with it, one of the most remarkable league titles any club has won in Europe in recent seasons.
It was also a useful antidote to the feeling among some that football had sold its soul after the mega rich owners of Manchester City and Chelsea scored significant league and European title triumphs. Montpellier showed that actually, it is possible for a small team with a limited budget to compete with the elite and even win – and by playing attractive football too.
French football will be the better for this result. The idea of a team winning promotion and then the title within a couple of years without spending big has disappeared in most of Europe’s top leagues since the turn of the millennium. But just like Swansea City in England, Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany, or Udinese in Italy, this was a reminder in the face of the demonstration of the power of new wealth, why football is known as the beautiful game, and that it can never truly be bought. It still has a soul burning brightly, and strengthened by the success of this remarkable Montpellier team.