So, Louis Nicollin has pulled the 2CV up at the car-boot sale and has started arranging his trestle table; Tinhan has been put on the train to Arles-Avignon on loan, Utaka is rumoured to be off to Qatar for a million or so, and then there’s Belhanda. Montpellier’s number 10 is usually the central creative talent in the 3 in a 4-2-3-1, but can also play as a deeper-lying playmaker in the 2; he’s a fiend for a dribble, can hold off much bigger players, has great deadball delivery, a nice line in Panenka penalties (Olivier Giroud ruefully saying that he had warned Vito Mannone about that before the first Champions League game, but the Arsenal goalkeeper hadn’t believed him) and a good eye for a goal.
Fenerbahce are in, as are Spurs, possibly as a stalking horse to lever more money out of the Turkish club. After extending his contract to 2015 in the summer, and making all the right noises about wanting to stay, it looks like Belhanda’s patience has snapped after a poor (individual and collective) start to the season, and he is offski.
As senior team debuts go, facing PSG in your team’s first match after promotion to the top flight (2009/10 season) at the age of 19 is a test – Belhanda went on to play 33 matches that season, with Montpellier finishing fifth, and qualifying for the Europa League preliminary round (they got knocked out), then 36 appearances and 3 goals in 2010/11 (finishing 14th). The former youth-teamer, who had won the U19 Gambardella cup in 2009 while also playing in the reserves, was now a key player in the Montpellier squad, and in their greatest achievement – winning the 2011/12 title. He made 28 appearances, scored 12 goals, won the UNFP awards for best young player of the season, best goal of the season, was in the team of the year, voted best African player in Ligue 1…
And so there were rumblings last summer, that he would leave. Instead, slightly surprisingly, he extended his contract to 2015, and pledged to stick around, to play Champions League football with his mates. In a lengthy interview with L’Equipe in August (print edition only) he set out his reasoning – it was to be a challenge:
“The idea is to climb even higher. To score more goals. And also to make more assists…The idea is to try for a perfect season.”
Ah. And therein lies the rub – this has not been anything close to a perfect season, either for Montpellier, or Belhanda himself. He started it late, for one thing, missing the Trophée de Champions with the last match of his ban for a fight against Evian in game 35, then the opening league match through injury. He has since scored six league goals (including two penalties), two in the Champions League (both penalties), made two assists, picked up two more red cards, and is now off at the CAN.
I am not sure how you say ‘a mixed bag’ in French, but Belhanda is having one at the minute – he has already failed his overly ambitious self-imposed challenge (perfect?), and may not yet have the maturity, or perspective, to pull himself together and start again. The atmosphere at Montpellier has been rather strained all season, with manager Rene Girard falling out with various players (dropping goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourdren, then defensive midfielder Marco Estrada, after bust-ups) and having one of your best players getting sent off at crucial moments probably means there has been some yelling in Belhanda’s direction as well. His first red of the season was in the home match against (ten-man) PSG, just after Montpellier had equalised; when the momentum was with them, and they could have marked an important victory. His second was for violent conduct in the last match of 2012, away at Lille, just after the home team had gone 2-0 up; again, at the moment he was most needed, to try to claw back into the game, he was out. And then there was the Evian match – again, his second red of a season – when a squabble over a last-minute penalty turned into a full-on fight, then a touchline brawl.
In the L’Equipe interview he referred to the need to stop thinking he could save Montpellier all by himself – in fact, while his brilliance is undeniable, he has several times been the person to drop his team-mates in it. His ball control is excellent; his self-control, less so.
When transfer rumours start, there will always be talk of Money. I’m not sure, however, that money is the motivating personal factor for Belhanda – again in the L’Equipe interview he spoke of not wanting to flash his cash (citing, amongst other things, religious reasons), and referring to buying a Porsche as “une folie de jeunesse”, and ‘unnecessary’, with an air of regret. He does seem to want Montpellier to profit, however, citing Eden Hazard as a good model to follow – “I hope that one day, Montpellier can cash in, thanks to me”. But his over-riding motivations seem to be disappointment and frustration, maybe even fear; having set the bar so high for himself and failed, is he looking for an escape? If so, a move to Fenerbahce may make more sense; a league ranked 12th in the UEFA coefficient might be more manageable than a move to England (2nd) or even staying in France (5th). There’s a temptation to think that if he just lightened up a bit, this situation might not have happened.
In case anyone is wondering why the hell bother, however – it is very simple; because of those honours won last season, because of that goal at Marseille, because when he came on in the last Champions League game against Schalke you could see the change in the game, because he can do all this (check out 50 seconds in, to see him torturing PSG last season). Because when he is on his game, he is wonderful, and the hope is that as he matures (he’s still only 22), he will only get better. But he needs to lighten up.
LouLou has therefore put Belhanda front and centre on the trestle table, with a price-tag of €15m (à negocier); he is a practical man, and a shrewd businessman, but there is a sad note to his statements about his star – “C’est normal qu’il aille voir ailleurs et qu’il flambe ailleurs. Je crois qu’à Montpellier, c’est fini”. Hopefully Younes Belhanda can light up another club and another league, rather than burning out.