Montpellier are growing accustomed to punching above their weight. After clawing their way back into Ligue 1 in 2009, they took everyone by surprise by finishing fifth in their first season back, an achievement the southerners look well capable of repeating in what is now their third straight season in the top flight. With virtually a quarter of the campaign gone already, they lie second, just three points adrift of leaders Paris Saint-Germain.
While some observers doubt their ability to last the pace, Montpellier coach Rene Girard is refusing to rule anything out. “We’re up there right now, but it’s a bit early to say whether we’ll still be around at the end of the season,” he told FIFA.com ahead of their forthcoming league engagement at home to Dijon. “What it does do, though, is let us set our sights pretty high. Going into the season we gave ourselves the target of finishing in the top seven, but we’ve seen that maybe there’s scope for us to do better.”
For a club with only the 14th-largest budget in French football, that might sound like an impossible dream. Yet, La Paillade have made a habit of upsetting the odds in recent times, elbowing their way into UEFA Europa League and the French League Cup final last season and now keeping big-spending PSG company at the top of the table.
“It’s important to show that even if you have only modest resources you can compete against €150m budgets. There’s no greater reward than that,” continued former midfielder Girard, a member of the France squad that reached the semi-finals of the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™.
“There’s more to football than money. It’s great when you’ve got it, but if the mindset’s right and you’ve got the desire, the continuity, the young players and you put the work in, then you can achieve anything. You have to know how to use what you’ve got.”
A burning passion
The southern outfit are known for their fighting spirit, which is symbolised by both Girard, a man rarely able to contain his emotions in the dugout, and the club’s firebrand of a president, Louis Nicollin, who has been in the post since 1974. Montpellier’s reputation as a combative outfit goes before them, their committed approach resulting in them occupying last place in the Ligue 1 fair play table two seasons ago, a position they improved on by only two places last term.
“I know we have this image of being a fiery side,” acknowledged the coach, himself known as a hard tackler during his playing days with Nimes and then Bordeaux, with whom he won three French league titles. “For me it’s a kind of recognition, and I see it as part and parcel of the game. People say we’re a wholehearted and aggressive side, but we’ve done well because we also play good football, and that’s something I don’t hear often enough.”
Argentinian midfielder Tino Costa and Colombian forward Victor Hugo Montano were two of the players responsible for Montpellier’s stunning first season back in the French elite.
Having since moved on, their places have been taken by the likes of Olivier Giroud, Marco Estrada and Younes Belhanda. A 21-year-old midfielder, Belhanda is one of the figureheads of the club’s latest generation of gifted youngsters, which won the French U-19 Cup two years ago and now forms the backbone of the first team. Girard has a total of 13 home-reared players at his disposal, a source of immense pleasure for the hands-on coach, who said, “When you work with youngsters it saves you a lot of time.”
France’s national youth coach between 2002 and 2008, Girard is well qualified to assess the potential of Montpellier’s new breed. “When you’re coaching young players, you always say that if you can bring one, two or three players through to professional level, then you’re doing well,” he explained.
“I could be wrong and I hope I’m not getting ahead of myself, but I think this is an exceptional generation,” he continued. “The gap between youth and professional football is huge, and you have to keep them on the straight and narrow and make them understand that there’s nothing easy about being a footballer. There have been more than a few outstanding generations who’ve fallen by the wayside, and we have to make sure that doesn’t happen with this one.”
Girard believes his young bucks could even taste success this season: “Getting the job done - that’s how you build the future. And I’d say we’re on the way to achieving some pretty exciting things here. Let’s put it this way: if we’re still in there at the end, we won’t choke.”
Unlike two seasons ago, that will not come as a surprise.