La Paillade gave hope to underdogs all over the world as they outlasted their big-spending rivals over 38 matches to pick up the Championnat crown
By Robin Bairner | French Football Editor
On Sunday night, the Montpellier side dubbed by coach Rene Girard as his “ugly ducklings” became beautiful swans as they incredibly fended off stiff competition from Paris Saint-Germain to claim their maiden Ligue 1 title.
Although the former France Under-21 boss was aware he was referencing the famous Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, he doubtless wouldn’t have dared dream of this happy ending, the parameters were simply too unlikely.
Carlo Ancelotti's PSG, freshly bolstered by QSI’s vast riches, were Europe’s biggest spenders last season, while his Montpellier side emptied a mere €2 million to acquire left-back Henri Bedimo from relegated Lens. His side was comprised largely of players who struggled to attain a comfortable mid-table position last term and at the start of the season they were regarded as 80/1 shots by the bookmakers to win the title.
On the field, though, Montpellier showed a togetherness and spirit that belied both their tender years and their unfashionable background. Their mental toughness was given a severe examination, too, as the season unfolded, with those at the top of the club constantly keen to play down their chances of winning the league.
Outlandish owner Louis Nicollin even commented: “Montpellier champions of France? If I was Marseille, Paris, Lyon, Lille or Rennes, I’d stab myself in the a*** with a sausage! What an embarrassment it would be for them.”
|HOT SHOTS | Montpellier's leading scorers 2011-12
Amid all this joking, moments of real difficulty did arise, but they were overcome impressively.
A very public conflict between star men Olivier Giroud and Younes Belhanda was impressively pushed to one side after a damaging 2-2 home draw with Evian, while on the final day of the season their encounter in Auxerre was marked by protests from the home support that saw the game suspended twice for lengthy periods. Needing to avoid defeat to claim the title, there was as much tension on the field as there was in the stand, yet a couple of goals from John Utaka guided the Herault outfit to a 2-1 comeback victory.
This season has made heroes of everyone in the Montpellier squad. The experienced pros such as Utaka, centre-back Hilton and Souleymane Diawara have all enjoyed resurgences, while young players such as Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Garry Bocaly, Benjamin Stambouli and Remy Cabella have all carved for themselves the makings of excellent careers, no doubt attracting wistful glances from Europe’s elite.
Two superheroes have burst onto the scene, though, stars who even the great Zinedine Zidane commented are capable of “extraordinary” achievements. At the season’s outset, owner Nicollin’s comment that Belhanda would be considered in the bracket of Lille’s Eden Hazard was met by some astonishment from the media. But they are not smirking now, as the young playmaker has indeed matched the Belgian almost stride for stride over the course of the last nine months, despite finishing the season in the stands following an ugly dismissal in the aforementioned Evian draw.
His attacking flair has been wonderfully synchronised with the grit of Jamel Saihi, the finesse of Marco Estrada and the pace and power of Camara and Utaka.
Striker Olivier Giroud, meanwhile, finished the campaign as Ligue 1’s top scorer, claiming the honour by virtue of the fact he had scored fewer penalties than Paris Saint-Germain’s Nene. Although a potent force in front of goal, he was also a terrific all-round spearhead for his side, contributing with numerous assists.
The balance that Montpellier enjoy in their side allows them to play in many different ways. They have shown themselves to be capable of out-passing teams and playing intricate attacking football, but they are also skilled in the more hard-nosed aspects of the game; ready to defend in a disciplined manner and compete on a physical level to an extent that could see them labelled occasionally crude. They practise the kind of pragmatism that would bring a smile to the face of Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho.
And they may face the great Portuguese when they embark on their Champions League adventure next season, hoping, doubtless, to enjoy another wondrous run such as the one that has made them football’s ultimate underdogs over the course of the last year.
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