In-form Olympique de Marseille are aiming for a fourth straight Ligue 1 Conforama win when they host Montpellier Hérault SC on Saturday, but boss Andre Villas-Boas has warned his side: "It's a big test for us."
Olympique de Marseille - Montpellier Hérault SC
After a slow start to his tenure as OM coach, the former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur manager has seen his team take shape and hit form in recent weeks. Their opening day loss to Stade de Reims and the draw with FC Nantes in Week 2 have been followed by three successive wins.
Fellow challengers for a top-three place OGC Nice and AS Saint-Étienne have both been beaten while troubled AS Monaco were seen off 4-3 last time out in a game where Villas-Boas' men turned around a 2-0 deficit to take the points.
Montpellier, who come into the game three points behind their fourth-placed opponents, represent another potential contender for the coveted European qualifying spots, and despite his team's irrepressible demeanour, Villas-Boas is trying to keep a lid on the enthusiasm that can sweep — and sometimes submerge — the Mediterranean city.
WATCH: OM win in Monaco
"It's going to be a difficult match. We've worked well to try and win the game. Montpellier are very well organised, particularly in terms of their defence. We'll have to be at 100 per cent to take the three points. This game is very important given the other matches this weekend. There's Rennes-Lille and Lyon-PSG.
"It's a big test for us, the players will have to be careful. Organisation and spirit might not be enough against such an opponent," said the Portuguese tactician. "Results give you confidence. So we're happy with our recent results. It's still too soon to get carried away. Anything can still happen. The table is too unpredictable. You win a game, you can be on the podium.
"The next time out, you lose and you can be eighth or ninth. I don't want to talk about where we'll finish. We want to finish as high up as possible in the table. We'll see where we are at in February, once we've played all our opponents, once a good part of the European competitions have been played out."
Benedetto settling in
Villas-Boas is right to remain cautious, particularly as OM had as many points as they do now (10) at the same stage of the 2018/19 season under his predecessor, Rudi Garcia, before things turned sour.
Yet the display at the Stade Louis II showed his team are more than just well drilled. There was character in picking themselves up after falling behind to two Wissam Ben Yedder goals, Dimitri Payet struck a fabulous individual effort, and summer signing Dario Benedetto scored twice to take his season's tally to four and add further credibility to the idea he has acclimatised quickly to European football.
The ex-Boca Juniors forward will be the main threat to a Montpellier defence that has kept just one clean sheet in its last nine league matches. Daniel Congre could play despite having felt a twinge in his calf in the 2-1 win over Nice in Week 5, but the experienced centre-back may be rested — with Nicolas Cozza deputising — ahead of next week's derby with Nîmes Olympique.
WATCH: Montpellier take Nice win
With his team having picked up just a point from two road trips this season, coach Michael Der Zakarian insists his players must have their minds entirely focussed on the test ahead of them at the Stade Orange Vélodrome, even if the fans' thoughts are already wandering into next week.
"We can't talk about the derby today. We first have to focus ourselves on the big game we have to play in Marseille", said Der Zakarian, who was born in Marseille.
"We'll need a big performance if we want to come back with the three points. When you look at what they did going forward in Monaco, there's a lot of quality. They're capable of unlocking defences. It's up to us to be strong collectively in defending and to cause their defence problems.
"There's certainly going to be a lot of fans and a lot of passion. It'll be a good game to play. We'll need to hold on to the ball well if we want to attack, make them run and knock them off balance. We have to be able to reproduce our home performances at the Vélodrome."
OM: Mandanda; Sarr, Kamara, Gonzalez, Amavi; Sanson, Strootman, Lopez; Germain, Benedetto, Payet
Montpellier: Rulli; Mendes, Hilton, Congré; Souquet, Ferri, Le Tallec, Oyongo; Mollet; Laborde, Delort