March 31, 2012 by Sam Elling
Without the big-spending of PSG, the support of Marseille or the incredible front office of Lyon, Montpellier are on top of Ligue 1. Figuring out why a team promoted just three years ago is leading the title race could prove to be even more confusing than their success itself. Is it because the “top dogs” don’t have any teeth? Or is something special happening?
The Top Dogs:
Lyon, over the past few years have proven to be the most successful club at buying low and selling high when it comes to talent. They’ve sold on players like Benzema, Malouda, Essien and Ben Arfa; all of whom were acquired from middling teams in Ligue 1 and put into the veritable talent showcase of the Champions League. However, the ceiling appears to have been reached, most notably through their inability to find a buyer for Michel Bastos over the last few transfer periods. Bastos, presumably one of the most talented wingers in Europe and a World Cup starter for Brazil in 2010, is at the turning point in his career where he is as good as he will ever be. Nonetheless, his age essentially guarantees that his next contract will be his last.
PSG have become “Manchester City: French Edition” over the past season, winning bids on some of the more promising players from all over the world, with a bottomless pool of money and a conviction to improve their quality with blank checks. Their transfers, like teams in similar situations (Malaga, Man City, Chelsea, et al.) appear to have been scouted through video game rosters and ratings, as opposed to scouring the earth for hidden gems.
To generate income, most teams in France tend to hold on to players for as long as possible in the hope of cashing in on their talent or notoriety. PSG are going the other direction. If some talent is held back in Ligue 1 for a king’s ransom, then PSG would be the one’s paying to get their kings. Yet they still (and may always) lack that indefinable characteristic of the truly great teams– that intractable pedigree of accomplishments, both recent and traditional. If PSG ends up on top at the end of the season, it can be explained away that they simply bought it.
If Marseille were to win, it would be the result of overcoming the perennial implosion that has affected the team since the glory days of the early 1990s. In any given season it seems that Marseille can only beat themselves; an opponent who they have damn near stomped to death on many occasions as of late. Marseille fields some of the best players in France at their respective position: Gignac, Remy, Cheyrou, Valbuena, Mandanda, etc. In fact, one gets the impression that if they took all the French players on Marseille’s squad and declared them the national team, they would have a pretty good argument for being one of the better national teams in Europe. But they won’t win the league. Whether it could be just the pressure of playing in a situation where your own fans anxiously await the time when they can turn on you, or just awful management… it just won’t happen for Marseille this year.
And now to our unlikely hero:
Is Montpellier succeeding based on the failures of the powerhouses? Or is there something genuinely remarkable happening?
Montpellier have the best goal differential (+26 for now) and the best striker in Ligue 1 (Olivier Giroud with 18 goals so far), additionally, they possess only a few players that have been tracked by larger teams and even fewer players that have been capped by the FFF during what has been one of the more miserable eras in its history. How are they doing it?
You world have to go back to 1991 to see anything you’d call success at a high level (a draw against Manchester United in the Cup Winner’s Cup). Nothing about their table position seems to make sense. Their talisman, Olivier Giroud, was playing for Tours until last season when he left for Montpellier. Mid-table, Ligue 2, Tours (a team so unremarkable that he’s already listed as a “Notable Former Player” on Wikipedia).
Certainly he’s the most valuable player for Montpellier, but a striker cannot exist in a vacuum. Statistics aside, the real star may very well prove to be Younès Belhanda. Belhanda is a local kid and Moroccan national who is having a marquee season after a few stutters early on. He’s had an assist or a goal almost every game since the restart of the year and ought to be on track for a big transfer this summer.
Belhanda may prove more enticing than even Giroud come transfer season, as his age and potential are the sort of thing you’d expect a top four deal-seeking English team to be salivating over. He’s a safe bet, as somewhat incomplete target strikers are more of a gamble for teams than utility mid-fielders with a lot of room for growth.
As a player, Belhanda is living up to his potential, and as a team Montpellier is living up to theirs, which is perhaps the reason they are accomplishing what no one would expect them to do. Surveying them as a squad, they shouldn’t be much better than any other bit-part player in Ligue 1… but sometimes a bit-part player steals the scene, and in Montpellier’s case, the league.