SPIRO BLOG: Montpellier united until the end
By M. Spiro
Not even a public spat between two of their best players has derailed Montpellier’s title charge. Ahead of Sunday’s crunch game against Lille, Matthew Spiro explains why he thinks René Girard’s side would be worthy champions.
There were ten minutes left at Rennes on Monday when Montpellier’s inimitable president Louis Nicollin decided he could watch no more. Wiping his moist brow in the stands, ‘Loulou’ could be seen burying his face in his hands, daring to peep out between fingers only to see if the clock had reached anywhere nearer 90 minutes.
In truth, he need not have been so worried. The Ligue 1 leaders were two up and playing with the utmost calm. They closed down the spaces hungrily, snapping in to tackles all over the pitch. At the back, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Vitorino Hilton were in imperial form once more. Rennes tried hard, but had by now given up the ghost.
“Imagine if Rennes had pulled a goal back! It would have gone totally crazy,” said an ashen-faced, breathless Nicollin as he tried to come to terms with the fact his club had moved to the brink of their first-ever league title.
Montpellier’s owner since 1974 does not usually travel to away games, but these are special times. “I’m exhausted,” he went on. “This is killing me. Thank goodness we don’t play for the title every year. Frankly, I’d rather we were eighth right now. Wouldn’t that be great? We’d be so chilled out. But look, we have to deal with the situation. Let’s try to get a result against Lille. If we do that we could finish second.”
Montpellier are top, three points ahead of PSG, with two games to play – and yet still Nicollin is refusing to contemplate the eventuality of finishing as champions.
A win or a draw against Lille, accompanied by a PSG defeat against Rennes, would see the southerners crowned with a game to spare. By the same token, Montpellier could still finish third – Lille will move to within two points if they win at the Mosson, and their captain Rio Mavuba has been at pains to point this out to Girard’s players.
It is quite simply one of the most exciting and intriguing title races France has witnessed in the modern era, and it is extremely likely to go down to the final day. Maybe even the final minutes. Indeed, we could finish with three teams level on 77 points, leaving goal difference to separate them (and even this is close).
I don’t think it will, however.
No cracking under pressure
If Montpellier were going to crack, they surely would have done so at the Stade de la Route de Lorient. In the days leading up to the Rennes game, the talk was of a rift in the camp. Star playmaker Younes Belhanda had unwisely accused Olivier Giroud of shirking his responsibilities by not taking a last-minute penalty against Evian Thonon-Gaillard.
It was easy to understand Belhanda’s sentiments. He was frustrated because he knew he would not play again this term due to a suspension. And he was right: Giroud probably should have taken the vital spot kick that Souleymane Camara ultimately failed to convert. Yet the verbal attack highlighted tension between two of the team’s best players and could easily have had disastrous consequences.
Girard: "Conspiracy to bring us down"
Instead, amazingly, it looks to have brought the team even closer together. Girard cleverly used the episode to make his players believe the world was out to get them: “There is a conspiracy to bring us down,” the coach declared. The squad has made a point of displaying a united front ever since. Suspended Belhanda travelled to Brittany to support the team – and even managed a broad smile every time the camera was on him.
More significant still is the way they played. There has been much talk of Montpellier’s difficult run-in. “They have to go to Toulouse, they have to go to Rennes, they have to play Lille…” Well, the first two hurdles have been cleared with minimal fuss.
PSG and Lille have more individual talent, but Montpellier may well possess the better team. Unlike the others, they are dependent on no single player. While Lille’s form corresponds very closely to Eden Hazard’s moods, and PSG need at least one of Nenê, Javier Pastore and Jérémy Menez to fire, Montpellier muddle by whoever is playing.
What will they do against Rennes when Belhanda is not there, asked the doubters. Youngster Rémy Cabella will come in and play superbly well. What about when Giroud stops scoring? Camara will chip in with a vital strike.
Giroud and Belhanda will rightly be singled out for their fine seasons. Henri Bedimo and Hilton have also been top class. Yet this has undoubtedly been a team effort. On Monday, the two players who most impressed me were two of Belhanda’s former youth-team colleagues: Cabella and Benjamin Stambouli.
The productive academy is one of the main reasons for Montpellier’s rise – but not the only one. Despite Montpellier having only the 13th budget in Ligue 1, Girard has pieced together a remarkably strong squad. When they began to tire at Rennes, for example, three good, experienced pros – Romain Pitau, Joris Marveaux and Geoffrey Dernis – could come off the bench to make sure they got over the line.
Overall it was the sort of performance champions tend to produce: unfussy, not particularly stylish, yet remarkably effective. If they can produce two more like that they will finish on top of the pile. And then Nicollin will be able to “chill out” – at last.