The last few minutes of Montpellier matches this season have not been massively enjoyable; throwing away leads, failing to capitalise on chances, losing coherence…
Looking at the goal times in their matches this season, seven of the fourteen conceded have come at 70 minutes or later – all were important, resulting in one draw (Toulouse), and four losses; Lorient’s two goals in injury time to win 2-1, Gignac’s winner for OM, two for Reims for a 3-1 win, and the last minute winner from Evian. Of the twelve Montpellier have scored, only three came after that marker – one was an equaliser (St Etienne), but the other two were icing-on-the-cake goals at Nancy and Sochaux, whose position in the league table speaks volumes. Yes, there was the 90th minute equaliser away at Schalke in the Champions League, but the general trend is…downward.
So, when Montpellier looked to be cruising into the last twenty minutes of their home tie against Olympiakos, there were nerves.
Things started well – Henri Bedimo was imperious from left-back, and Benjamin Stambouli, in his (I think) fourth position of the season, filled in at right-back for the suspended Garry Bocaly with his usual hustle. Rene Girard had gone with an attacking set-up including only one holder – the vital Jamel Saihi – playing Younes Belhanda and Remy Cabella together in the middle, Mounier on the right, Utaka (back from injury) bundling his way up the left, and the tall, hulking, and not-very-much-used-so-far Gaetan Charbonnier up-front.
And Pionnier in goal. Rene Girard has been forced into some changes by a variety of injury and disciplinary issues, but benching your perfectly fit if understandable slight chippy goalkeeper to go along with that looked like cutting off your nose to spite your face, and after doing it against Rennes, most had assumed that the manager had got it out of his system and Jourdren would be back. He wasn’t. Whether that would have made a difference is a moot point, but it maybe indicates that Girard, like his team, doesn’t really know what to do with himself right now.
Olympiakos did not, at this point, look much cop – Rafik Djebbour put himself about upfront but cut a mostly lonely figure as his colleagues scrambled the ball away. Formerly-of-Monaco’s Francois Modesto looked to have been charged with marking Charbonnier, of which he did a decent job, several times beating his taller charge to an aerial challenge. But there was a lot of hoofing, and ‘last ditch’, involved.
So – Montpellier dominated the first half, Bedimo awesome, Belhanda (a bit quiet so far in the Ligue after an injury-affected close-season) was trying some of his old tricks, and Utaka, while more ponderous than ever after a lay-off, was making his presence felt up the left. Mounier was very underwhelming, but overall things seemed to be going OK. At half-time, the scoreboard proudly showed 65% possession to the home team, and the visitors hadn’t had a shot. It was still 0-0, however.
Shortly after half-time, it looked like Montpellier had broken the deadlock, with a great strike from Charbonnier – a good time to score his first competitive goal for his new club. The ineffective Mounier was taken off for Estrada, who slotted in next to Saihi to allow Belhanda to come forward properly, and Cabella switched out to the wing. As Montpellier sought a second, they brought on Camara for Charbonnier – he has put in some shifts at centre-forward in the absence of any confidence in Herrera, but still has a winger’s instincts – around 70 minutes he went on a lovely run up the right, looked up to cross, and….there was nobody there.
This lack of edge, of final cutting edge, will be a huge problem if Montpellier don’t shake themselves out of it. They have good players, they play very well, they can dominate possession, but they don’t capitalise on this – and more worryingly they drop off massively in the final twenty minutes. Djamel Abdoun had already caused a scare immediately on coming on at 60 minutes, picking up a throw-in and launching a nasty ball across the box. Olympiakos seemed more enervated by the goal than Montpellier, and were beginning to cause problems – and on 73 minutes, they bundled one in after a free-kick, and it was level.
It’s a bit odd, when the opposition scores at a live game; there’s so little fuss – no big roar, no music on the tannoy, only a perfunctory, tailing-off ‘Numero 35, Vasilistorosidis…’ to go by. And the crowd goes quiet, and the players look angry, and then the game starts again but it’s muted now, people fearing what usually happens, or gamely reassuring themselves that nah, they’ll get another…
They didn’t, of course – they had a couple of rallies in the immediate aftermath of the equaliser but as the clock ticked down, a strange torpor seemed to descend on Montpellier. It was like they didn’t actually want to win. Maybe they were scared of losing, maybe they were tired, maybe – my preferred theory – the constant rotation and positional changes has completely done for the automatisme of the team, but they didn’t get another. And in the 91st minute, as is becoming more frequent, they conceded again. Abdoun made his way round Bedimo to lay on the ball for Mitroglou.
So – 64% possession, 18 shots to 4, 86% pass completion to 67%, none of this means a damn thing when the passes that go astray are the key ones, when there is rarely anyone in the box to cross to, when you pass when you should shoot and shoot when you should pass, and you fail to score goals.
Montpellier’s CL performances so far have been admirable – that second half against Arsenal, the ten-man comeback to equalise at Schalke – and while they played well tonight, this was a match they needed to win; a draw might just have worked. Instead they lost, which is nearing ‘crushingly inevitable’ as an outcome.
The enforced absences have not helped, nor has the lack of click with the new signings; but the constant rotation, even when not mandated by circumstance, the seemingly haphazard approach to selection, the lack of consistency for the players to develop an understanding on the pitch, is also a big problem. But most of all, it’s that 70-minute mark – as Younes Belhanda said after the game tonight «On joue cinquante minutes, une heure, 1h10… Mais quand on comprendra que le match c’est 90 minutes … on pourra gagner».
“Then we can win” – they have 90 minutes to play against Nice this weekend to try to claw their way away from the relegation zone. As the final whistle blew, the tannoy pumped out hard rock, but the stands were already near-empty and the music could not drown out the singing of the Olympiakos fans.