Pressure builds on Montpellier as Ligue 1 finish line nears
Montpellier coach Rene Girard has admitted the pressure is increasing on his side as they travel to Toulouse on Friday night looking to take another step towards a first-ever Ligue 1 title.
The southern club are locked in a tense battle with capital giants Paris Saint-Germain for the French crown but, after spending most of the season happy to be dismissed as underdogs against the challenge of their far wealthier rivals, now the context has changed.
PSG's inconsistency and Montpellier's stunning home form have combined to convert the latter into many observers' favourites to end the season on top of the pile.
Montpellier beat Valenciennes 1-0 to secure a club record-breaking 21st win of the season last time out, but their performance betrayed the tension which must now be getting to their players.
PSG then produced arguably their best performance under Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti with a 6-1 demolition of Sochaux last Sunday, but Montpellier play first once again this weekend and thus have another chance to open up a provisional five-point gap.
Their game at Toulouse has been brought forward to Friday so as not to clash with the French Cup final on Saturday evening, although a Toulouse team with the meanest defence in France and a European place to play for will not make life easy at Le Stadium.
"There is added pressure on us," admitted Girard.
"We need to learn to deal with it. We are a young team, enjoying a third excellent season together, but we have not proven anything yet.
"I tell the players every day that we have not won anything. We are two points clear with 15 left to play for.
"We need to put things into context," he added when it was put to him that his side are currently struggling to produce their swashbuckling form of earlier in the campaign.
"Maybe we are not as dashing as we were, maybe we are not scoring as many goals, but the context has changed.
"Our opponents are competing for European places or to avoid relegation, and these teams now look at us in a different way.
"We need to remain realistic, not get carried away, and remember where we have come from.
"The players are doing their very best but it is becoming more complicated. We are not where we are, after 33 games, purely out of luck. And we are not going to hide."
PSG's trip to Lille on Sunday has the potential to be one of the games of the season so far, especially with the defending champions knowing that a win could yet propel them back into the title reckoning.
Rudi Garcia's side currently sit five points adrift of PSG so this is very much their last chance but they are arguably the best side in France when on form.
PSG's former Lille midfielder Mathieu Bodmer remains wary of the hosts' threat but is confident of coming away with a positive result.
"They are a very good side going forward, especially with Eden Hazard in such great form at the moment," he said.
"They have also been playing together for several years now.
"I think this game will be a turning point in our season. We need to win to increase our lead over them and keep the pressure on Montpellier."
Their chances could be improved if the brilliant Hazard does not recover from a sore calf in time.
Beyond the title race, troubled Marseille will be looking to finally end their winless run after 12 league games when they go to struggling Lorient in the only other game brought forward to Friday.
Europa League contenders Rennes take on Ajaccio on Sunday, while Saint-Etienne entertain Dijon and there is a crucial clash between Auxerre and Brest with both clubs in the relegation zone.
With Lyon playing in the French Cup final against third-tier Quevilly, their trip to Evian has been put back to next month.
Fixtures (kick-off times GMT):
Toulouse v Montpellier (1700), Lorient v Marseille (1900)
Auxerre v Brest, Nancy v Caen, Rennes v Ajaccio, Saint-Etienne v Dijon, Sochaux v Bordeaux, Valenciennes v Nice (all 1500), Lille v Paris Saint-Germain (1900)
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