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Montpellier defy odds to claim French throne
Published : 20 May 2012 23:17:11
Nobody could have seen it coming at the start of the season, but Montpellier's historic French title success has been thoroughly deserved.
The southern club have been the most consistent team in Ligue 1, never dropping below fourth and spending almost the entire campaign in the top two.
Rene Girard's team have scored goals for fun at times and defended superbly throughout. They have won more games and collected more points than Lille managed on the way to winning the crown last season and have lost just once at home.
In Olivier Giroud they had Ligue 1's joint-top scorer -- alongside Nene -- with 21 goals, and in Giroud and Moroccan playmaker Younes Belhanda, they boasted two of the four nominees for France's player of the year award.
And yet when the campaign began the club appeared to have set the bar a little too high with their stated aim of a place in the top seven.
After all, Montpellier had finished just three points above the relegation zone and scored a paltry 32 goals in 2010-11.
They also set out with a budget of 36 million euros ($46.5m), barely a quarter of that of Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain.
Against the financial might of the men from the capital -- not to mention Marseille, Lyon and Lille -- Montpellier are small fry.
The football club compete with their rugby and handball counterparts for attention in a city with a population of 250,000, and the average attendance at the Stade de la Mosson is barely 17,000.
French Cup winners in 1990, the second major title of their history has nevertheless sprung from solid foundations.
Louis Nicollin, the larger-than-life club president who has been in charge since 1974, has invested wisely in youth, and many of this season's first-team regulars were home-reared.
Goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourdren, captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Belhanda came through the ranks, while midfielders Benjamin Stambouli and Jamel Saihi and creator Remy Cabella have all enjoyed breakthrough campaigns.
While PSG spent vast sums in both the summer and winter transfer windows, Montpellier restricted themselves to two major signings last summer in the shape of Brazilian centre-back Vitorino Hilton from Marseille and flying Cameroon left-back Henri Bedimo from Lens.
"When I arrived last summer, the squad was already in great shape. They just needed the last couple of links to the chain," said Bedimo, who rapidly became a fans' favourite.
"There were players with something to prove; great talents, uncovered diamonds. But it is incredible to achieve so much with such little means."
With PSG rebuilding, Marseille underperforming, Lyon going through a period of transition and Lille needing time to cope with the loss of key elements of their title-winning side, Montpellier took full advantage by starting the campaign with three straight wins and never looking back.
Theirs is a triumph of David versus the Goliath that is PSG and one that will probably never be repeated, especially with the capital side well-placed to dominate in the years ahead.
It is hard to imagine a club of such means ever winning the title in any of Europe's other leading leagues in an era when financial power counts for so much.
Indeed, it is a success that should never have happened at all in the eyes of the outspoken Nicollin.
"Montpellier champions? Impossible," he said in an interview with sports daily L'Equipe in November.
"If I were at PSG, Lyon, Lille or Rennes, and Montpellier finished as champions, I'd want to stab myself in the backside with a sausage. What a disgrace that would be!"
At the time, nobody expected Montpellier's success to continue. Indeed, it was only after a mature performance in a 2-2 draw at PSG in February that Girard himself began to talk up the side's chances.
"Paris will be a much stronger team than us one day, but for the moment that's not the case," he said.
"They have a much bigger media profile, and their quality squad makes them favourites, but we've shown out on the pitch that PSG aren't better than us.
"What we've achieved belongs to us alone. We don't owe it to anybody else."