After upsetting the odds to the win the French league title for the first time, Montpellier’s next task is keeping their tight-knit squad of players together as rivals Paris Saint-Germain prepare for another massive spending spree.
For PSG, the humiliation of failing to win their first league title since 1994 – despite spending more than $132 million on players – will be somewhat softened by European Champions League football and the arrival of more big names.
Montpellier’s title-winning squad featured nine home-grown players, in contrast to PSG’s relentless pursuit of stars at the expense of their own youth academy. The likes of midfielders Younes Behanda and Karim Ait-Fana, defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and winger Remy Cabella have caught the eye of Europe’s big clubs, while Olivier Giroud is also in demand after scoring 21 league goals.
“If we can keep this squad together, with two or three new arrivals, that will be great,” Montpellier coach Rene Girard said.
President Louis Nicollin, who has owned and funded the club since 1974, is confident Montpellier will be PSG’s main rival in seasons to come.
“Don’t worry, we’ll still be around for the next five years because things will gel together,” he said after Montpellier sealed the title with a 2-1 win at Auxerre on Sunday to finish three points clear of PSG, who won at Lorient by the same score.
“It’s the best day of my sporting life, that’s for sure,” Nicollin added.
“I will get my hair cut as promised.”
The 68-year-old Nicollin had told fans that if Montpellier won the title he would get his hair cropped and dyed in a Mohawk style – the latest fashion trend in footballer haircuts inspired by Brazilian star Neymar.
Nicollin has been at Montpellier almost as long as PSG have existed – PSG was founded in 1970 – and there is a special bond between him and his players, and between the players and the fans.
“It’s a beautiful love story between a president and his club, and between a club and a city,” said French league president Frederic Thiriez, while Girard alluded to PSG’s failure to win a trophy this season by saying “money doesn’t make for happiness.”
PSG’s huge outlay included spending a French record $55.4 million on Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore.
Other highly rated players were prized from some of Europe’s big clubs: winger Jeremy Menez joined from Roma, midfielder Mohamed Sissoko from Juventus, defender Maxwell arrived from Barcelona and midfielder Thiago Motta from Inter Milan.
The contrast with Montpellier could not be greater. The league winner’s local players blossomed into a tight-knit unit with an unshakable team spirit. Montpellier spent only a fraction of PSG’s colossal outlay, and Giroud cost only $3.3 million when he signed from second-division Tours two years ago.
Hasty decisions weighed heavily on PSG’s title challenge, too.
PSG’s title bid started to go off the rails after coach Antoine Kombouare was replaced by former Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti during the winter break.
Despite guiding PSG to first place, and being three points clear of Montpellier, Kombouare was fired in late December to make way for Ancelotti – primarily because the club’s cash-rich Qatari owners, QSI, wanted a bigger name to boost the club’s standing worldwide.
It was very harsh on Kombouare, who was popular with PSG fans from his playing days at the club as a central defender in the 1990s.
“I didn’t agree and I never will,” Kombouare told France Football magazine recently.
“I wanted to continue, I never gave up. I wanted to show them that I was a competent coach who could get good results.”
Ancelotti reshaped the team as new signings arrived. But while the attack scored regularly, Ancelotti’s constant tinkering with his defence failed during a tense title run-in where the lead changed hands. PSG let in clumsy late away goals to Nancy in a 2-1 defeat, in a 1-1 draw at Auxerre, and a 2-1 defeat at Lille to hand Montpellier the initiative.
Montpellier’s consistency was underlined by the fact they scored in 92 percent of matches and Giroud was the only player in the French league to score in every month of the season.
While PSG played the more spectacular football, especially at home, they also leaked soft goals. Montpellier’s iron defence, meanwhile, helped them keep four clean sheets in the last six games when the pressure mounted.
“It’s a victory for the whole squad, for the collective,” Giroud said.
“We held firm.”