What: French Ligue 1
Who: Montpellier vs Marseille
When: Sunday 26th August, 2012, at 16:00 UK Time
Where: Stade de la Mosson, Montpellier, France
Champions Get Rude Awakening
Lorient, who so nearly beat the overwhelming title favourites Paris Saint-Germain on their own patch on the opening day of the season, got the scalp they deserved against Montpellier last weekend. Two late,late goals deep into stoppage time condemned the champions to a surprise defeat.
Coach Rene Girard has had a difficult start to the new season. He has had to contend with the loss of striker Olivier Giroud to Arsenal and has been without Marco Estrada and Younes Belhanda for the start of the new campaign; three of the most important players in their charge to the title last season. Montpellier are learning what it is like to be the champions and to be dealt the cruel hand of fate by lady luck on the injury front.
Their owner, Louis Nicollin, never one to mince his words, has done his bit to pile pressure on by declaring that “on Sunday we will beat OM and get back on the right road. But the spirit is not good. It is scandalous. There are a few at the moment who are really annoying me. I’ve always loved my players, my team, and now I admit and recognise that I love them a bit less."
Such bizarre comments from Nicollin are nothing new to Montpellier though, and they have some cause for optimism. Estrada is back for this clash, while Belhanda should be, and although the same cannot be said for Anthony Mounier, that will be a huge boost for Girard. And one of the encouraging things about the opening two games has been that Giroud’s replacement, Emmanuel Herrera, has slotted in quickly and got his first goal for his new club against Lorient. He will need plenty more though if Montpellier are to challenge to retain their title.
Baup Off To A Flier
Marseille have begun the new campaign like the last one never happened. Four wins, one draw, no losses. The most inconsistent team in France last year, the kick-off has seen two routine, but nonetheless impressive victories in Ligue 1. The last time the south coast club achieved that, they won the title (in 2010). And this has been without Loic Remy, the star forward, who made his comeback in the week with a 15-minute cameo against Moldovan outfit Sheriff Tiraspol in the Europa League qualifiers.
It is just what new coach Elie Baup would have wanted as the former Nantes boss begins life at the Stade Velodrome. This will be his first major test, a clash with last season’s champions is a key measure of whether Les Phoceens have what it takes to win the title. One of the more unlikely features of Marseille’s first games of the season has been the spritely form of Andre-Pierre Gignac, who now has three goals in four competitive outings. For a player who has contributed so little since his move from Toulouse in 2010, it is quite a turnaround.
With Remy still to fully return, Andre Ayew appearing in good form and Benoit Cheyrou at his creative best, Marseille will provide a stern test for Montpellier. Charles Kabore is coping admirably in the role vacated by the departed Alou Diarra and soon to be gone Stephane Mbia, whilst Cesar Azpilicueta has completed a move to Chelsea. The trip to Moldova on Thursday may have taken something out of Marseille though. Baup knows the real tests are still to come, and they start at the Stade de la Mosson.
Lorient 2-1 Montpellier (18/08; Ligue 1)
Montpellier 1-1 Toulouse (10/08; Ligue 1)
Montpellier 2-2 Lyon [2-4 pens] (28/07; Trophee des Champions)
Sheriff Tiraspol 1-2 Marseille (23/08; Europa League)
Marseille 2-0 Sochaux (19/08; Ligue 1)
Reims 0-1 Marseille (12/08; Ligue 1)
Montpellier: Younes Belhanda (doubt); Jamel Saihi; Anthony Mounier; Garry Bocaly
Marseille: Andre Ayew (doubt); Souleymane Diawara; Leyti N’Diaye
Players to watch
Montpellier – Younes Belhanda. Belhanda’s probable return could not be more timely for Girard. How he would have wished for him against Toulouse or Lorient, although Remy Cabella did his best to fill his shoes. The Moroccan can be a key figure on show and will be determined to provide what his team have been missing. He should be able to find space between the Marseille defence and midfield that he thrives in, meaning this game is set up for his prodigious talents.
Marseille – Mathieu Valbuena: Valbuena has enjoyed a quiet start to the season, but he was arguably Marseille’s best player last year. The creative playmaker can take advantage of the space he may enjoy at the Stade de la Mosson to open up the Montpellier defence and create chances for Gignac and Ayew. His tight dribbling skills and ability to thread inch perfect passes mean he will be crucial for Marseille.
Montpellier will hope that the return of Estrada and in particular Belhanda, will give them the added creativity that fired them to the title last season. With Mournier absent that will be even more vital, whilst if there is a weakness in the Marseille side, it is possibly in the centre of the pitch, where they have lost Diarra and Mbia looks set to go. Girard needs his team to take advantage of that area of the pitch to carve open their opponents.
But on the break they will have to be wary. Marseille are an excellent team on the counter attack with the pace and passing ability of the likes of Cheyrou, Morgan Amalfitano and the Ayew brothers. Gignac has rediscovered his scoring touch but can he continue his form against a team of Montpellier’s quality?
With two teams with strong defences, but lacking in central midfield, there could be plenty of chances in this one. It is unlikely that either team will throw everything at victory so early in the season and it is also 45 games since Montpellier participated in a goalless draw, therefore it may take a late, late winner from the champions, as they did so often last season, to seal the three points. Montpellier 1-0 Marseille.
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