Montpellier have won the most remarkable of titles in France after an incredible title race ended in drama on Sunday.
La Pallaide were losing 1-0 at Auxerre early on, but after they equalised in the second half, home supporters angry at their team’s relegation pelted the field with missiles. Play eventually resumed, but then flares were thrown and a second interruption occurred. Montpellier plays left the field and the game was far behind that of Paris St Germain, who were at Lorient. They won 2-1, meaning that Montpellier had the extra pressure of knowing that if they conceded another goal, they would finish second.
And still they found something to score a winner and claim the French championship. It was a remarkable end to a remarkable season, in which Rene Girard’s side have gone from being tipped for a mid table finish to champions.
Rarely, particularly in recent times, can a team have come from so far, so fast to win the title. Particularly against Paris St Germain, bought by Qataris last summer, and who embarked on Europe’s biggest spending spree in the close season. But the Parisians scored an own goal when they appointed Carlo Ancelotti to take over from Antoine Kombouaré half way through the season.
Ancelotti is an undoubtedly gifted coach, who will surely bring much success to Paris. But he took over a team which Kombouaré had taken to the top of the league and tinkered with it. The formation changed. Instead of a conventional 4-2-3-1, with four attacking players, Ancelotti removed one of the four and made it a front three, with a trio of defensively minded midfielders.
He also tinkered with the back line, making numerous changes as the defence became increasingly leaky. It was not though until March that his team lost for the first time under his management, an impressive achievement. But he had conceded many points in that time in drawn games. Eventually he stumbled upon a system which worked; he played the triumvirate of Jeremy Menez, Javier Pastore and Nene up front without a conventional centre forward.
In doing so, he balanced the team, as the creativity of the forward three was able to create the space and the chances to score goals without a recognised forward. But it was too late.
Montpellier had by then taken the lead in the title race. Their second half of the season was remarkable, not quite as free scoring as the first half, but they won game after game in a superb run from January. That led them to the top of the table, whilst a 2-2 draw at Paris St Germain, a game they dominated, underlined that they were serious challengers.
They proceeded to find themselves in a position where they were able to take the lead in the title race coming into the final weeks of the season. This put Montpellier in a new position. Now they were title favourites, and were finally forced to accept that they were a genuine title contender. Yet they did not stumble. Toulouse were seen off, and then Evian held them 2-2 in a game in which Younes Belhanda was sent off and had a dispute with Olivier Giroud. These were the team’s best two players.
Their ability to cope with this was tested with an away game at Rennes, who were flying high in Ligue 1. Girard’s men won though, and then beat champions Lille, before defeating Auxerre in the dramatic finale. It was the most remarkable of title triumphs. It was a timely reminder too that football is not, as much as it may seem so, all about money.