Montpellier threat for high-flying Saint-Etienne
By A. Scott
AS Saint-Etienne can climb provisionally into second spot with a win at home to Montpellier Hérault SC on Friday, although they are wary of opponents in fine form against the leading Ligue 1 Conforama sides in recent weeks.
AS Saint-Etienne - Montpellier Hérault SC
Óscar García's men are currently third in the table, just two points better off than SM Caen in eighth but also just two points behind AS Monaco in second coming into Week 10, and their new coach has already made Les Verts especially difficult to beat at home since taking charge.
Saint-Etienne are unbeaten in five Ligue 1 Conforama matches at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard this season, winning three, including last weekend's 3-1 victory against FC Metz. On that occasion they had been a goal down before roaring back in the final 20 minutes with Vincent Pajot and Habib Maïga both on target either side of an own goal.
The opportunity to move above reigning champions Monaco is tantalising, even if it is only for a short while. But former Barcelona midfielder Óscar has a longer-term outlook so is not getting distracted by being on the podium.
Highlights: Sainté sweep aside Metz
"We must not pay too much attention to the league table. It is anecdotal at this stage of the season," said the Spaniard, who led Red Bull Salzburg to the Austrian title in each of the last two seasons.
"But we must acknowledge that we are happy with our position given that there is a new coach, new staff and new players. We need to keep picking up points, continue our progression and keep constructing the team. We are moving forward little by little and we are realistic, but we know what we can do."
Bamba frozen out
Not everything is easy for Óscar, who is still without the defensive trio of Loïc Perrin, Ronaël Pierre-Gabriel and Florentin Pogba and comes into the game with doubts about the fitness of Bryan Dabo, the former Montpellier midfielder.
Dabo (2) and Jonathan Bamba (4) are the only Saint-Etienne players to have scored more than once this season, and Bamba has been frozen out of the side due to a contract dispute, a decision taken upstairs that Óscar admits is "detrimental" to the team.
Montpellier have not won on nine visits to Le Chaudron, with their last - and only - victory away to Saint-Etienne coming 22 years ago, in October 1995. They are 11th in the table, but can move to within two points of their hosts by winning on this occasion and their recent results have been eye-catching.
After a poor start to the campaign, the 2012 champions are now unbeaten in four games. Michel Der Zakarian's side held Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco in successive matches prior to the international break and followed that by beating OGC Nice 2-0 at home last weekend, with Stéphane Sessegnon and Isaac Mbenza on target.
"We have already played Montpellier in a friendly in the summer but they are a different team now compared to what they were in July," added Óscar. "They are solid defensively and have only let in six goals. They are fast and good on the counter-attack, have held the two best teams in Ligue 1 and have just beaten Nice, so it won't be easy against them."
Having collected five points from last season's top three in their last three games, Montpellier will not be intimidated by the prospect of facing high-flying Sainté, who Der Zakarian is not surprised to see on the podium.
Highlights: Sessegnon stunner as Montpellier beat Nice
"No, because even with Christophe Galtier in charge Les Verts had some good seasons and were always in the top five to seven places, with two or three European campaigns," he told a press conference ahead of the game.
"They are a solid team who have recruited well and now they have really interesting attacking potential. They have lost a few players at the back due to injury but they remain a solid team and difficult to beat at home."
Montpellier welcome back Portuguese centre-back Pedro Mendes after suspension and he should slot back into a three-man defence. Left-back Jérôme Roussillon is out with a thigh injury but otherwise the visitors have a clean bill of health.
Saint-Etienne: Ruffier (c); Janko, Théophile-Catherine, Lacroix, Gabriel Silva; Hernani, Selnaes, Pajot; Hamouma, Soderlund, Cabella
Montpellier: Lecomte; Mukiele, Mendes, Hilton (c), Congré, Aguilar; Mbenza, Skhiri, Lasne, Sessegnon; Sio
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