UEFA Champions League Watch: Montpellier HSC

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It’s quite surprising really. A side who had never featured in the Champions League before, a side who had never even come close to winning the Ligue 1 title before. A side, in fact ranked 106th by UEFA below the likes of FC Vaslui and Anorthosis (but still above Newcastle United). It’s safe to say, 2012 was a season of firsts for Montpellier Herault SC.

The club which has stormed to European recognition gear up for arguably their biggest match in their history on Tuesday evening at Stade de la Mosson against Arsenal FC, and well, still apparently taking their shock league triumph in, after securing their maiden Ligue 1 title in a frantic and unprecedented finish on May 20, 2012.

Rene Girard’s men were comfortably expected to at best, finish in the European places. Unfathomable some said, a fluke other said. After all, there was still Olympique de Marseille, Olympique Lyonnais, a newly-rich Paris Saint-Germain and LOSC Lille Metropole to challenge for the title. Step away, this is big boy territory. And in any case, there were other “established clubs” who would still pose a threat – the likes of Bordeaux, Rennes, and Saint-Etienne who would challenge. The difference – neither are hosting Arsene Wenger’s side.

You could be forgiven for not actually knowing much of la Paillade who rose to prominence in a shock, freak 2011-12  campaign.  Great early starts to a league season are never counted, in Europe’s most notorious and unpredictable league. But when Montpellier were somehow still in the top three after Christmas, after Easter, and finally in May – people took notice.

The club are relatively new – formed in 1974 by larger-than-life (literally) Louis Nicollin, chairman of the Nicollin group who still runs the club today. The president famed for his outburst, and who has shrewdly built a side who were unafraid of throwing themselves into big challenges on and off the field.

After a period of moderate successes – most notably in the late 80s and early 90s when the club won the French Cup and had players such as Carlos Valderrama and soon-to-be World Cup winner Laurent Blanc, the team would find itself drifting in and out of the top tier with relative levels of mediocrity.

Fast forward to 2009, and the current dynasty was born. Nicollin brought in Rene Girard who steered the club back into Ligue 1, and surprisingly, a number of astute signings, and a brilliant youth academy saw the team find its perfect blend of youth and experience with the likes of Victor Hugo Montano and Alberto Costa (now at Valencia) taking Ligue 1 by storm and finishing in a shock fifth place finish, with brought it an unsuccessful UEFA Europa League berth.

Girard failed to rest on his laurels, and further promoted a number of youth players – included in that would be future stars Benjamin Stambouli and Remy Cabella, whilst signing John Utaka and Olivier Giroud to complement his fledgling squad. A solid start to the season was undone by a late slump in 2010-11, and the club would eventually finish in 14th place, though progressed to the League Cup final where they lost 1-0 to Montpellier.

2011-12 was largely expected to be the same. But usually, what you plan, fails to come to fruition – though this time, it would be for the better. A safe pair of hands in goal in Geoffrey Jourdren, Garry Bocaly as a right-back, the experience-youth pairing of Hilton and captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, and the best left-back in the league in Henri Bedimo made for a perfect defence, as la Paillade conceded the joint-fewest goals.

With a collection of Marco Estrada – a more defensive type creative player, flanked by the no-nonsense Jamel Saihi and the outstanding playmaker and attacking midfielder in Younes Belhanda saw Montpellier consistently overrun even the most packed of midfields – a trait Ligue 1 is usually known for.

In attack, it would be the aerially-capable and striker Giroud, who was serviced by former Portsmouth reject John Utaka and Souleymane Camara to provide the goals and wing-play. It would be an unusual team who hit the jackpot.

With PSG fast clawing back the advantage in early May, Montpellier failed to cease and desist, winning five of their last six games, and beating Lille, who were also fighting for the title. But they would become victims of their success. Giroud left, Belhanda expressed a “I’ll stay for one more year” plea, whilst Yanga-Mbiwa failed to get AC Milan out of his head.

And so it showed. Three defeats in their first five league games – even Nicollin couldn’t hide his embarrassment. “I wish we weren’t champions!” he exclaimed. “If we finished second, we would still have the hunger. With a title, the players want more money!”. Truthful, but hurtful. Girard’s men worked hard for their dream, and on the eve of it becoming a reality, they find themselves in a predicament.

What sort of Montpellier side can Arsenal expect?

Montpellier will deploy  a different style for their UEFA Champions League debut. Typically, Arsenal are stronger down the middle, whilst la Paillade usually have pace on the wings. The likes of Estrada and Saihi – whilst key, are not European quality. Bedimo, Bocaly, as well as Camara, and Ait-Fana have the trickery and pace to challenge their English counterparts.

The loss of Giroud has hurt Montpellier. The replacement, Emanuel Herrera has had a tough time acclimatising in France, with a solitary league goal. He has looked rather lethargic, as well as poor in movement so far.

As for the defence, Yanga-Mbiwa and Hilton or Congre possess the quality to limit Arsenal, but as Marseille found last season, a single loss of concentration and you will pay. It is difficult to exactly pin-point where Montpellier can seriously impact on Arsenal, who will still have to contend with the impressive Younes Belhanda.

Tuesday night will hand Girard and Nicollin the dream that they always wanted. It may also quickly turn into a nightmare.

Prediction: Montpellier 1-4 Arsenal

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