SPIRO: Montpellier rekindle art of defending
Montpellier are proving that the art of defending is still very much alive - and they'll be out to frustrate Neymar and friends on Saturday, writes Matthew Spiro.
So, according to an article that appeared in Wednesday's L'Equipe newspaper, Neymar is finding it hard to come to terms with the physicality and the defensive nature of Ligue 1. Opponents, it seems, prefer not to stand off and watch PSG's Brazilian weave his magic. More often than not Neymar has two, three or even four defenders for company as soon as he gets on the ball.
Fair enough. Given half an opportunity the brilliant 25-year-old attacker will destroy you. Dijon adopted a rather more relaxed approach last week and ended up shipping eight goals, Neymar contributing four of them and setting up two more. But he shouldn't expect that kind of freedom often in Ligue 1 and he certainly won't be getting it on Saturday.
Montpellier head to the Parc des Princes with the aim of enhancing their reputation as the best defensive side in the land. Michel Der Zakarian's men have leaked just 15 goals so far - two fewer than PSG - and haven't lost any of their five games against PSG, Lyon, Monaco and Marseille so far.
The key to their revival has been a very deliberate and unashamed shift towards defence. This Montpellier team takes pride in breaking up attacks and kicking the ball into the stands when necessary. It is, one might say, forged in the image of their trainer: Der Zakarian used to be an uncompromising centre-back who would drive opponents to distraction. Eric Cantona's flying two-footed tackle on 'Der Zak' in a game between Nantes and Auxerre in 1988 serves as testimony.
Last term, before the Armenian's appointment, the southerners let in 65 goals (only Metz and Lorient conceded more) and finished 15th. "When the coach arrived in the summer he told us we had to tighten up," says left-back Jérôme Roussillon. "Defence has become the key. It's what he wants."
According to plan
Roussillon and friends are executing the plans brilliantly. Der Zakarian's decision to install a five-man backline has proved a masterstroke because he has assembled (and inherited) the ideal tools.
Roussillon and Ruben Aguilar have been exceptional on the flanks, defending as a priority but also covering an astonishing amount of ground with their tireless raids. "Ruben must have run 11,000 kilometres today," claimed an impressed and only slightly deluded Roussillon after last weekend's win over Toulouse. While Aguilar is excelling in his first top-flight campaign, Clairefontaine graduate Roussillon (25) is fulfilling his potential and attracting interest from Marseille, Monaco and Sevilla.
The central trio has been equally impressive, with the 40-year-old Vitorino Hilton at the heart of it all. When he was offered another one-year extension last summer, many felt that the Brazilian's influence would be restricted to the dressing room. In fact, the ex-Marseille man has started more games than his compatriot Neymar, and above all has marshalled the defence wonderfully. "He plays with his head, not with his legs," Der Zakarian noted earlier this month.
Rise to the challenge
Hilton may point out that his legs are still functioning pretty well. He was never the quickest, yet the veteran's ability to read the game is quite uncanny. He'll need to be at his very best against Neymar and Edinson Cavani, no question, but the 2012 title-winner knows he'll be able to rely on his colleagues for support. With the aerial prowess of Daniel Congré and the speed of Nordi Mukiele alongside Hilton, Montpellier have all the qualities necessary to the resist the very best.
While PSG have their MCN, the superstars in Montpellier are the defenders. RCHMA might not be the catchiest of acronyms, but on Saturday Der Zakarian's warriors will be handed an ideal stage on which to show off their defensive class. Neymar probably isn't licking his lips, but defending remains as important a part of football as attacking. And Montpellier are taskmasters.