Montpellier chasing European dream at Strasbourg
Montpellier Hérault SC have their heart set on European football, knowing a win over RC Strasbourg Alsace on Friday could lift them into fifth, the final UEFA Europa League place, for 24 hours at least.
RC Strasbourg Alsace - Montpellier Hérault SC
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La Paillade last qualified for continental competition in 2011-12, when a team led by Olivier Giroud, Younès Belhanda and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa shocked the French footballing world to win the club's first and hitherto only Ligue 1 Conforama title.
Michel Der Zakarian's 2017-18 vintage may not be putting quite the same pressure on this season's league leaders Paris Saint-Germain - the team they beat into second place six years ago - but they still boast the division's second-meanest defence after PSG, and midfielder Ellyes Skhiri thinks it's high time they made sure of fifth.
'Within our reach'
"We have opponents within our reach waiting for us," said the Hérault-born midfielder, who recently committed his international future to Tunisia. "Our goal is very clear. We need to secure fifth place. It would be amazing for MHSC to be in Europe next season."
Watch: Highlights of Montpellier's 1-1 draw with Guingamp
With incumbents FC Nantes drawing 1-1 at OGC Nice last Sunday, Montpellier's own 1-1 draw at home to EA Guingamp the previous day felt like a particular slip-up, and the coach was less than impressed.
"It's a shame that we didn't play in the first half; we didn't make ourselves available enough for passes," he stormed at his post-match press conference. "We woke up in the second half and I appreciate the fact they started fighting for and holding onto the ball. It felt like we were playing with eight against 11 in the first half, though. You can't play like that when you're aiming for fifth place."
Der Zakarian could make changes as MHSC seek to better Nantes' result against Amiens SC, with Souleymane Camara and Casimir Ninga pushing for a spot in attack alongside top scorer Giovanni Sio. Keagan Dolly could start ahead of Junior Sambia in midfield, but left-back Jérôme Roussillon and defensive midfielder Facundo Piriz remain sidelined with calf problems.
Montpellier may not find Strasbourg quite so willing to lie down, though. The Alsatians were beaten 5-2 by PSG last Saturday, but Der Zakarian's opposite number Thierry Laurey is confident his promoted side can get the better of most teams outside of the upper echelons of French, and indeed European, football.
Watch: Highlights of PSG'S 5-2 win over Strasbourg
"Our goal is to stay up," he said. "Anything against Paris would just be a bonus. I'm happy with how we did though I think we could've done better. We lost our aggression late in the game and conceded two avoidable goals. Now, after PSG, we'll get back to what is the real competition for us."
Strasbourg are without centre-back Kader Mangane and second striker Martin Terrier, the latter of whom was bought by Olympique Lyonnais from LOSC in the winter transfer window and immediately loaned back to Le Racing, with whom he had spent the first half of the season.
The goal burden will rest on Stéphane Bahoken's shoulders, then. The Nice academy graduate, who spent time on loan at St Mirren in the Scottish Premiership four short seasons ago, has now scored in both games in which he has faced PSG this season, and his confidence, perhaps unsurprisingly, outstrips that of even his coach.
"We must remember that we conceded goals by making mistakes, so if we'd avoided that, the score might have been level," said the striker, who took to Twitter to wind up PSG star Neymar with a change in profile picture after the game. "We would've been worthy, but a mistake in Ligue 1 Conforama isn't forgiven."
RC Strasbourg Alsace: Kamara; Lala, Koné, Martinez, Seka (c); Gonçalves, Aholou, Liénard; Martin; Da Costa, Bahoken
Montpellier Hérault SC: Lecomte; Mendes, Hilton (c), Congré; Aguilar, Skhiri, Lasne, Dolly; Mbenza, Camara; Sio
>> PRE-MATCH STATS
>> PRESS KIT