Paupers threaten the Parc des Princes
Paris Saint-Germain's new Qatari owners have spent more than €100 million of their mind-boggling fortune on trying to bring the Ligue 1 title to the capital. While their spoils are founded on the product of decomposed dinosaurs, the significantly smaller seven-figure treasure pile collected by Montpellier's owner, the colourful Louis Nicollin, is the rotten fruit of French dustbins. The team it has helped produced, however, is anything but rubbish. Nicollin has spent just €1.5 million on improving a squad that finished only three points above the drop zone last season, but his league-leading side look like showing that where there's muck, there could be silverware.
"It's a bit of a mystery," Andy Scott, a Paris-based Ligue 1 commentator, says when asked to explain the club's unlikely title challenge. "Montpellier are quite lucky they're having this season right now. As good as they've been, it's possibly not a great sign for French football. It's not quite a flash in the pan, it's a well-run club, but they're taking advantage of teams not being quite what they are and what they will be."
With Lyon, Marseille and even champions Lille not living up to their billings, the support act from the South West is stealing the show. What PSG's owners make of the fact they are being eclipsed by a team with a budget five times inferior to their own is unlikely to be printable, especially with the two clubs operating at opposite poles in the transfer market. While Javier Pastore, Maxwell, Alex and Thiago Motta among others have arrived at the Parc des Princes, Montpellier picked up Vitorino Hilton on a free from Marseille, from whence the Brazilian centre-back had fled after being home-jacked, and added a cosmopolitan if unglamourous touch with Cameroonian left-back Henri Bedimo from relegated Lens.
Contrary to expectations that the duo would barely raise the quality of a squad destined to do no better than mid-table, the pair have contributed significantly to a team that has thrilled its way into title contention. "They love football, and they make you love football," legendary Auxerre manager Guy Roux gushed following Montpellier's 2-2 draw at the Parc des Princes just over a fortnight ago. So fearful were PSG of the visitors' flowing play, which has left them the division's leading scorers, that Carlo Ancelotti's men adopted a physical approach that at times stepped over the line. As respected pundit and former Saint-Etienne star Jean-Michel Larque said: "We saw the difference between Rene Girard's players, who were able to play using their collective and individual quality, and those of Carlo Ancelotti, whose team play is poor and who continue to get themselves out of trouble thanks to a moment of individual brilliance."
Only a Guillaume Hoarau equaliser two minutes from time had denied former Portsmouth forward John Utaka the honour of being his side's matchwinner in the capital. Three points in Paris would have taken them to the top of the table, but the Nigerian struck again late against Bordeaux to finally do that last weekend. Pompey fans will no doubt be only too aware that Utaka is not the kind of player to turn games on his own, and Larque's highlighting of Montpellier's unity is not merely anecdotal. A club that once boasted the unique talents and personalities of Eric Cantona, Laurent Blanc, Carlos Valderrama and Laurent Robert now has no such headline grabber. That may not remain the case for long though. Olivier Giroud - Ligue 1's leading scorer with 16 goals - has broken into the French national side and is now attracting come-hither glances from Europe's top clubs, and Bayern Munich and Manchester City in particular, as well as the undoubted thousands of adoring female fans his movie star looks bring.
And Giroud isn't alone. Morocco international Younes Belhanda, just gone 22, is an artful midfielder capable of scoring goals, as he did against PSG, while Jamel Saihi, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Remy Cabella have also emerged as fine purveyors of top-quality footballing talent who may soon be tempted by brighter lights and bigger pay packets elsewhere. "There are so many players in that squad, five or six of them, who are genuinely exciting," Scott told ESPNsoccernet. While the youngsters have been given the chance to shine, players like Marseille cast-off Garry Bocaly - a right-back who raids forward with effect - and Hilton have been able to reignite their careers, and experienced Ligue 1 performers like Utaka, Souleymane Camara and Joris Marveaux, the elder brother of Newcastle United's Sylvain, have helped the younger players exploit their potential while upping their own games.
The man who has meshed this disparate band of old-stagers, under-achievers and young hopefuls into a team is Rene Girard, a three-time Ligue 1 winner with Bordeaux as an unpleasantly tigerish midfielder. "He was nasty, but also capable of playing fantastic passes. Today, he's reproduced as a coach what he was like as a player," said World Cup-winning former France boss Aime Jacquet, whose points-per-game average during his spell as Montpellier boss is far outstripped by that of Girard. "The nastiness to give his players a kick up the backside when they need it while also trying to impart his technical finesse."
Girard, previously coach of the French Under-21 side, was brought into the club with promotion having been achieved under Rolland Courbis, the French footballing equivalent of Del Boy, in 2009. It was a brave gamble given he had no meaningful coaching pedigree at club level, and one for which Nicollin should be given credit. If there is a star at Montpellier, it is their president, whose larger-than-life frame suggests not so much 'a refueling problem' as individual use of hydrocarbons that contributes 25% of the world's greenhouse gases. "You've got Qatar, we've got lard," the Montpellier fans chanted at the Parc des Princes in honour of their big-boned president, who - true to form - had turned around at the airport and gone home to watch his team's game in the capital on TV. President of the club since 1974, Nicollin may be Lyon-born, but there is no doubting his commitment, recently revealing that while on holiday in Phuket, he waited up till 3am, sweating nervously on the result of his team's game against Brest.
That anxiety will only have been heightened by Montpellier's ascension to the summit of the table. Despite that fact, however, most people do not expect Montpellier to still be there come May. Though they finished fifth upon their return to Ligue 1, they fell from sixth place at this stage last season to near relegation fodder as they picked up only nine points from their last 13 games, and many clearly expect a similar fall from grace. A poll of Ligue 1 presidents, players and coaches run by sports paper L'Equipe last week saw only 24% tip them to do it, while 60%, including Nicollin and Girard, went for PSG. "Even now, people don't think Montpellier can win the title," Scott says. "There's no real reason why, though, other than that people think they're going to struggle with injury or suspension. Dijon away next weekend is the kind of game they should win, but how will they cope without Giroud, who's suspended? How important is he? Evidently, very."
Montpellier may have to get used to being permanently without their leading scorer, particularly should he have a good Euro 2012, but do not expect the likely €16 million generated by the sale of a man who was purchased for just €2.5 million to burn a hole in Nicollin's pocket. "What worries me is what we're going to do after we're first or second," the president said. "People are going to be asking for €50,000 a month. But we're not going to commit suicide, even if it's going to be tough to deal with. Look what's happened to Bordeaux, Lens or Auxerre - it's enough to make you go mad." The club's budget does not even include bonuses should they qualify for the Champions League this season. It is a rare lack of foresight.