Despite the fact that we are only three weeks into the new campaign, my pre-season prediction of Montpellier spending this year battling relegation seems wide of the mark. I felt that given their lack of goalscoring presence and last season’s struggles to replicate their winning formula from 2009/2010 that saw them finish fifth, La Paillade were destined to endure a tough year. I would appear to be wrong so far.
Following a fantastic early season run of form the side find themselves top of the table with a 100% win record thanks to great victories over Auxerre (3-1), Lille(0-1) and Rennes (4-0), making a mockery of my expectations. Last weekend’s performance against Rennes was particularly impressive and manager René Girard is delighted with the way his team have hit the ground running this season.
Speaking after the match he said: “There are no question marks over this win. We always play to win and things are going well right now. We have nine points, which means there are now fewer points needed to ensure that we stay in Ligue 1 this season. But we won’t get carried away; we’re not playing for the title.”
“We need to keep our feet on the ground because this was just the third match of the season and there’s a dangerous game ahead of us in Lyon next weekend. But still, tonight we won with rigour, desire, good football and strong finishing. That’s the kind of football I like.”
The squad Montpellier have entered this campaign with is relatively unchanged from the one that suffered through the end of last season and only Henri Bedimo of Lens and Vitorino Hilton of Marseille have joined the club whilst Emir Spahić is the one notable departure. Although this sees the side retain its sense of experience, many expected Girard to address the fact that MHSC were the lowest scorers in the league last season with 32 goals. That was not the case and the manager has kept his faith in Olivier Giroud who netted 12 times last campaign, and John Utaka who arrived in January but still has not scored in 16 appearances.
So what has changed then? Most importantly a number of big-name players have started to find their form on a regular basis and have been produced some sparkling and at times, disciplined performances. Going forward Giroud has already netted twice in three games and probably should have scored in the Rennes match as well, missing a gilt-edged opportunity and Younès Belhanda has stepped up this season and netted twice in three games, finally appearing to have filled the void left by Tino Costa’s departure at the beginning of last season.
However, it is not just up front where La Paillade have found some form, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa who many, including myself, expected to move on this summer has been a rock in the centre of defence so far. Add to that the seamless introduction of Hilton at centre-back and you can see why Montpellier have only conceded one goal so far this season. That though is not the whole story, Laurent Pionnier the 29 year-old backup goalkeeper heading into this season seized his opportunity to replace Geoffrey Jourdren when the latter suffered a rib injury on the eve of the season and has really impressed in the last three games. A string of his fantastic saves, combined with Mbiwa and Hilton’s tight partnership has formed a formidable defence that looks like it could become the baseline to the southerners’ future performances.
Approaching the season it seemed that René Girard’s attempt to base Montpellier’s success on the players’ familiarity and deep knowledge of each other’s playing styles was a flawed approach given how little success they enjoyed towards the end of the campaign in particular. However, La Paillade’s spirit and understanding this year has driven them forward at times, just witness the gritty team effort that saw them upset champions Lille in matchweek 2. Girard now has the team sharing the same mentality and bearing in mind that a large part of the side is still made up of those players who performed so well together in 2009/2010, this early season form could be an ominous sign.
Parallels such as the fact that MHSC were fourth in the table at the end of the first month of the 09-10 season when they eventually finished fifth would suggest that the club are capable of repeating this feat. It is too early to tell whether they could be aiming higher than fifth this year and you would think that it is an unrealistic aim too, but given their unbeaten start and new-found confidence, the signs are promising and the fans will now be approaching each game with great levels of optimism. I however, will be approaching my predictions of their results with a degree of caution!
Obviously because of the similarities between the start of this season and their first back in Ligue 1, the fans’ expectations will now have been raised above those of a mid-table finish and the potential within the side is still very high. With key youngsters such as Belhanda and Mbiwa performing well and Giroud scoring regularly, home form will be key to maintaining the team’s confidence. The team won 11 games at Stade de la Mosson in 09-10 and bettering that record would be an ambitious but not unrealistic goal considering that despite their 14th place finish last year they still managed to win nine home matches.
Now the fans have been reminded of the sides’ previous feats they may expect the team to push on and provide a repeat performance of that strong showing. With a number of players in the side starting the season looking like they have a point to prove, now is the perfect opportunity for La Paillade to step up and show themselves and their fans that their performances two years ago were not a one off.