Montpellier: Impossible Made Possible

Ligue 1

In France, Paris Saint Germain are king. Since 2011, and the takeover of Qatar Sports Investments group, they have had a budget dwarfing any other team in the league, and most in Europe. They flexed those considerable financial muscles in the summer, luring Neymar from Barcelona for over double the previous world record fee and loaning Kylian Mbappe after the sting of losing out on the Ligue 1 title last season to Monaco. Only twice since the injection of Qatari billions have PSG failed to top the table – last season to a now-dismantled Monaco side, and in the first year of the Qatar era, the 11/12 season, to Montpellier. In a season that provided many shocks across European football – Chelsea winning the Champions League, Man City winning their first title in 44 years in dramatic fashion – Montpellier’s achievement stands out.

Montpellier HSC hail from the south of France, and the current incarnation of the club was founded in 1974, just four years after PSG. They do not have a storied history in French football, the only honours before 2012 being a Ligue 2 title, a Coupe de France and an Intertoto cup. The season before, they had finished 14th in the league, a typical finish of them, a standard mid-table club. No one expected PSG to be usurped, with their extensive recruitment, the signing of Javier Pastore and Thiago Motta among others, Carlo Ancelotti in the dugout, far less by a team who were used to languishing in mid-table obscurity.

It wasn’t just PSG vying for the title. Lille were the champions going into the new season, but had lost several of their title-winning team, including Gervinho to Arsenal, and Yohan Cabaye to

Newcastle. They retained Eden Hazard, who at 21 had shown himself to be one of the brightest young talents in world football, and was more than capable of spearheading a Lille title challenge. The usual suspects Lyon and Bordeaux were also in contention before the season started, however with odds of 80/1, no pundit mentioned Montpellier.

La Paillade began the season strongly, winning five of their first seven. In the second game of the season, they were away to defending champions Lille, where they managed a 1-0 victory, thanks to a goal from Giroud, who would go on to be top scorer. The drew away to Brest and lost away to Lyon, leaving them on a respectable 16 points after seven games. Next up came the visit of nouveau riche PSG. Montpellier had given a good account of themselves away to Lille, so how would they handle PSG at home? Not well was the answer. Montpellier had no answer to the Parisian’s expensively assembled squad, losing 3-0 to goals from Kevin Gameiro and a double from Javier Pastore. Montpellier were not downtrodden from the result however, returning to form and went into the winter break second in Ligue 1, just three points off PSG, their capitulation at home to the Parisians being the difference between the two teams.

The team most utilised by manager Rene Girard in the league set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Most of the side had been there for at least a couple of years, the club spent just £2million in the summer of 2011, luring Brazilian centre-half Hilton from Marseille. The side was a mixture of experience and buoyant talent, some of who are still plying their trade around Europe. In goal was Geoffrey Jourdren, shielded by a back four of Garry Bocaly and Henri Bedimo at fullback, in the centre Hilton with academy product Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, who captained the side. The two sitting midfielders were future Spurs man Benjamin Stambouli and Jamel Saihi, also both products of Montpellier’s academy. The wings were predominantly filled by John Utaka, after he joined from Portsmouth in the January transfer window, and an emerging Remy Cabella, with cameos from Geoffrey Denis and Souleymane Camera. Leading the line was future Arsenal man Olivier Giroud, with Younes Belhanda pulling the strings in the number 10 role. The team was built upon their solid defensive foundation, keeping it tight at the back first and foremost, while relying on their attacking talent up the other end to see them through.

While Lille boasted the most exciting young talent in the league in Eden Hazard, Montpellier had their own playmaking starlet in the shape of Younes Belhanda. At just 22 years old, he was at the centre of everything Montpellier did going forward, notching 12 goals and 5 assists throughout the campaign. His crowning glory came away to Marseille in April, during Montpellier’s title run in. They were 2-1 up, thanks to a penalty from the young Moroccan and a goal from Olivier Giroud. Inthe 70th minute, Belhanda picked the ball up just into the opposition half and played it out wide to Bocaly, who carried it forward down the right, feeding into Giroud on the edge of the box. Giroud turned, and played a ball to Belhanda just inside the box. Belhanda controlled it with his chest, leapt up and acrobatically volleyed the ball in off the underside of the crossbar.

Belhanda was recognised for his efforts that season, winning young player of the year, goal of the season for the aforementioned stunner, and a place in team of the year. Since then, Belhanda hasn’t been able to find the form of that 11/12 season. Speculation was rife around the young playmaker, but he opted to stay at Montpellier for the following season and play with them in the Champions League. He has since had stints at Dynamo Kyiv, Schalke, Nice, and is currently turning out for Galatasaray in the Turkish SuperLig. After dominating Ligue 1 aged 22, there is a sense of unfulfilled potential about Belhanda’s career, never regaining that scintillating form.

After the winter break, Montpellier kicked on, grinding out three 1-0 victories straight off the bat in true title-winner fashion. Around came the visit away to PSG, which went far better than their previous meeting, a 2-2 draw, cruelly denied a victory by a late Parisian equaliser. The season wore on as Montpellier refused to budge from the summit of Ligue 1, defiantly grinding out wins. People were noticing, and were beginning to believe.

In the second last game of the season, they hosted Lille at home. PSG were hot on their heels, just three points behind with a superior goal difference. Lille were still in contention too, but needed a win to stay in with a chance. The match was a cagey affair, Montpellier’s resilient defence was put to the test. With PSG beating Rennes, a draw would mean Montpellier needed a win away to Auxerre on the final day to seal the title. The game remained goalless, until the 90th minute. Lille had committed all their men forward, anything but a win was useless to them. Montpellier cleared from a throw in, and Giroud gave chase, the sole Montpellier player in Lille’s half, outrunning the two defenders. He took the ball all the way to the by-line, awaiting support, as Karim Ait Fana, having sprinted from well within his own half, came into the box. Giroud squared it to Fana, who slotted home. He peeled away before being engulfed by his teammates and the dugout, everyone piling on, the home fans in delirium. The final whistle went soon after, the fans remained in the stadium, celebrating with their team, knowing they were so close to something monumental for their club.

The final day saw them away to Auxerre, who had been relegated after 32 years in Ligue 1, much to the fans dismay. The match was marred by crowd trouble, the home crowd flooding the pitch with missiles, forcing play to be stopped twice. This left Montpellier knowing the PSG result, who had beaten Lorient, meaning they had to avoid defeat to seal the title. They were tied at 1-1, knowing an Auxerre goal would sent the title to Paris, before John Utaka scored his second of the game fifteen minutes from time to allay any fears. Montpellier were champions of France.

A city more known for its prowess in rugby than football, they celebrated long into the night and well into the next day. Beloved President Louis Nicollin, a heavy-set eccentric of 69, promised he would dye his hair in the club colours blue and orange were the impossible to occur, and duly followed through on his promise.

Like Leicester, those heroics were to prove to be the exception, rather than the rule. Giroud, who finished top scorer with 21 goals, and nine assists, signed with Arsenal in the summer, captain Yanga-Mbiwa left for Newcastle soon after. Manager Girard left for Lille a year later, as did Younes Belhanda to Dynamo Kyiv. Montpellier have since returned to type, finishing mid-table. PSG have dominated the years since, and now spurned from losing out to Monaco last season, will probably reclaim their crown, however as Montpellier showed us, there are no certainties.