The surprise package of European football this season have been courting attention from many quarters, and Goal.com brings you some of the names to look out for this summer
by Robin Bairner | French Football Editor
While the usual suspects battle it out for supremacy in Europe’s biggest leagues, there is one club well positioned to claim their domestic championship that would have been given barely a second thought last summer.
Paris Saint-Germain’s takeover by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) captured many column inches, particularly once the big-money deals started to come to fruition, while quietly in the shadows, Rene Girard was preparing his Montpellier side to mount one of the most extraordinary title tilts in recent memory.
Built from a foundation laid by the club’s youth academy but added to by shrewd work in the transfer market, La Paillade now enjoy a three-point advantage over PSG in Ligue 1 with only seven matches remaining. The bookmakers may still have the capital side as favourites to pick up the French crown, but Montpellier’s confidence and fluidity hint that the club from France’s south may well defy the odds and lift their first league title.
A relatively unknown unit in the wider footballing world, Goal.com presents you with the club’s five outstanding players, who are certain to be the subject of great transfer speculation in the summer.
|HENRI BEDIMO | Left-back, 27
When 27-year-old Bedimo arrived at Montpellier last summer, he was considered to be something of a journeyman left-back, having played previously for relegated Racing Club de Lens, as well as a number of Ligue 2 outfits. He has flourished under Girard, though, with his barnstorming runs down the flank characteristic of the side’s power out wide.
The Cameroon international has flourished due to the freedom he’s been granted on the left, but he’s not been carried away with it either, and has been a strong link in the rearguard, despite his willingness to get forward. Over the course of this campaign, he’s proven he’s not all brawn, providing a well-used outlet down the left.
Remarkably, no Montpellier player has seen as much of the ball this term as the left-back, who has been involved in the play 1,735 times in the 30 matches he has featured in.
|YOUNES BELHANDA | Playmaker, 22
Undoubtedly the breakout star of Ligue 1 this season, the young Morocco international had shown plenty of potential in previous campaigns but had been unable to translate it into consistent performances. Now he’s a real leader of this Montpellier side in the heart of the field.
Club president Louis Nicollin predicted earlier this season that his charge would be more discussed than Lille’s Eden Hazard by the end of the term, and though the larger-than-life owner may not have been quite on the money, his prediction for Belhanda to go stellar was accurate. Indeed, he stands by the comments he made.
Describing Belhanda as “the largest pearl” in the team, he then enthused to RMC: “He is stronger than Hazard, [PSG’s Javier] Pastore and company. He has more class.”
The player has pledged his immediate future to Montpellier, but a move abroad in the future is likely, with the player confessing a penchant for the Bundesliga, where he admires Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger admitted last month that he "likes" the player, with Montpellier coach Girard comparing him to ex-Gunner Robert Pires in terms of style.
|OLIVIER GIROUD | Striker, 25
The man who scores the goals is often the man who grabs the headlines, and as such, Giroud has rarely been out of the sports press this season as he boasts an impressive 19 Ligue 1 goals this season, leading the league in this category.
Scoring regularly in many different ways is not the sum total of the former Tours striker’s game, though. He is also a clever hold-up player able to bring others into the play, and this is reflected in the fact that he has eight league assists to his name this season. Only a handful of players can boast a better figure in this statistic.
Giroud’s exploits have not gone unnoticed by the national team, and he would strike the only goal in February’s friendly against Germany on the occasion of his first start.
Inevitably, transfer rumours have followed. Bayern Munich were linked with the striker but have dismissed their interest because he is too similar to Mario Gomez in style, but interest remains strong, particularly from the Premier League, where the striker’s strength and aerial ability would undoubtedly be an asset.
Had suitors reacted quickly, they could have taken advantage of a €10 million release clause in his deal, but that will be waived if Montpellier qualify for the Champions League. Louis Nicollin has valued his striker in a tongue-in-cheek manner at closer to €50m, but realistically, his tag is around the €18m mark, even if it's unlikely he leaves this summer.
|JAMEL SAIHI | Defensive midfielder, 25
Something of a late bloomer in the Montpellier midfield, like Belhanda, he is a French-born footballer now playing internationally for a North African nation, in his case Tunisia.
The 25-year-old is the main destructive presence in this Montpellier team, protecting the defence alongside Chilean team-mate Marco Estrada. Saihi’s job is far less glamorous than the South American’s, though. It is in his remit simply to win possession then play it safe for his colleague to launch attacks from deep.
Before picking up a slight injury earlier this season, he was truly outstanding, giving his side an industrious and seemingly tireless presence at their heart.
He is the unsung hero in Ligue 1 this campaign.
|MAPOU YANGA-MBIWA | Centre-back, 22
Although Montpellier’s attacking players have received great credit for their efforts this season, it’s their defence that has been the bedrock of their success. From 31 games they’ve conceded only 29 goals, and since they really started to accelerate after Christmas, they’ve leaked only seven in 16 matches.
The versatile Yanga-Mbiwa has been vital in this regard. Playing in a central role alongside the experienced Hilton, a player who moved to the club following an unhappy stint with Marseille, the young defender has seen his reputation continue to grow, aided by the experienced steadying presence alongside him.
Strong and quick, he is touted as one of the leading lights in France’s next generation; a player of similar attributes to Mamadou Sakho, who is so highly thought of with PSG.
Of all Montpellier’s star men, he is the one likeliest to be granted a simple passage away from the club in the summer, though Nicollin has laid down his demands. Arguing that Yanga-Mbwia is a better player then Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny, the club’s owner has said that €14 million would be enough to persuade La Paillade to part with their defensive strongman, whose contract is up in 2013.
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