Montpellier The Dark Horses

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Slowly, steadily and unspectacularly, Montpellier have manoeuvred themselves into second place in Ligue 1.

While the spotlight has fallen elsewhere, PSG’s relentless winning form, Lille’s overdue renaissance or the failings of Lyon and Marseille to show any kind of consistency, Michel Der Zakarian’s outfit have stealthily worked a path to the silver medal position.

Surprise champions of France in 2011-12, the Languedoc outfit and in train to challenge for a place in the Champions League next season.

Unlike France’s traditional big clubs, their success has been built upon relentless consistency, the foundation of which has been defensive. Indeed, no team in Le Championnat has conceded fewer goals than Montpellier ahead of their trip to Angers on Saturday.

Der Zakarian, who has not seen his team go down to a defeat since a shock home loss to Dijon on the opening night of the season, has also started to get them functioning at the other end of the park, too.

Bordeaux head coach Gus Poyet resigned over his club’s decision to sell Gaetan Laborde to La Paillade in August, and it is the burly centre-forward who has done much of the damage for Montpellier of late.

Marseille discovered just what a handful he can be last weekend as he scored twice in a 3-0 win. The first was a headed effort after a subtle piece of movement left him unmarked, while the second was an opportunistic finish after the visiting side had made a shambles of defending a seemingly harmless situation.

The 24-year-old has six goals for the season, equalling his best return at this level and just two short of his previous best, which was attained in Ligue 2 on loan at Clermont.

Indeed, with five goals in his last five games, this is comfortably his best spell of his career to date.

Arguably there is more to come from Montpellier in an offensive sense. Florent Mollet was picked up from relegated Metz in the summer and operates in an attacking midfield role behind the two traditional centre forwards.

Injury has restricted his effectiveness so far this season, but in eight outings he has a goal and four assists. Having netted seven times for Metz last term, where he was their outstanding player, there can be little doubt that he has not hit his full capacity yet.

Der Zakarian, meanwhile, has made a 3-5-2 formation his trademark since taking over the coaching reins at the club in the summer of 2017. Wing-backs necessarily have played a huge role in their success during this time, with Jerome Roussillon outstanding last season before moving to Wolfsburg in the summer.

Ambroise Oyongo was his replacement. Signed from Montreal Impact last January, he was integrated slowly into the squad with an eye on replacing Roussillon. He has already shown himself to be entirely comfortable in an attacking sense, scoring two goals in nine matches, while providing solid cover at the back.

A more established figure at the club is Ruben Aguilar. An error in the Football Manager database last year saw Bolivia try to call up him, despite the 25-year-old’s lack of heritage, but he has been tipped as an outsider for a France spot as a result of his formidable performances over the last 18 months.

Former Auxerre defender Aguilar does not have the eye for goal of Oyongo, but he does have a couple of assists to his credit.

One man who has already had his exploits noticed by Didier Deschamps is goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte, who profited from an injury to Hugo Lloris earlier in the season to be called up by the world champions. With Steve Mandanda in mixed form currently, the 27-year-old could become an established figure in the national side.

His save percentage in Ligue 1 this term stands at 78.1, fifth in the league and significantly ahead of more established custodians like Stephane Ruffier (70.1), Anthony Lopes (67.5) and Mandanda (58.6).

Indeed, of all goalkeepers in Europe’s top 5 leagues who have made at least 25 saves, he ranks 10th.

This level of solidarity has underpinned Montpellier’s unexpected push for the Champions League, though before Christmas it is set to be severely tested.

December promises to be an onerous month, with fixtures against Monaco, Lille, PSG, Nantes and Lyon over a three-week period.

If that is successfully negotiated, then this is a team that really will start to dream.


About Author

A football journalist specialising in the French and Scottish game, Robin has been writing professionally for over a decade. His career highlights include attending World Cups in Brazil and Russia, and Euro 2016 in France.

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