Rene Girard’s plucky outsiders, led by Olivier Giroud, Mapou Yanga Mbiwa and Younes Belhanda, took the French top flight by storm as they secured the most stunning title victory in Europe’s top five leagues since Kaiserslautern won the Bundesliga immediately upon promotion just over a decade ago.
Things have rapidly changed since however. This was a team with a tiny budget, the 13th largest in Ligue 1, and they lost their talismanic striker Giroud to Arsenal. Giroud was replaced by Emmanuel Herrera, but he struggled to fill the Frenchman’s shoes. Belhanda has not quite been the same, and Yanga-Mbiwa was sold. Girard was aghast at losing Yanga-Mbiwa and in March he announced that he would be leaving his post at the end of the season. With Belhanda set to leave as well, it leaves Montpellier facing mediocrity in the face once again.
A proud club from the south of France, they had never won the title before last season. Bankrolled by the maverick Louis Nicollin, their ascent was remarkable, rising as they did in three years from the second tier to champions. But they have found it difficult to cope with being champions. Unable to defend their title with any intent, the realisation that it was a one off and the fact that the best players in their team had caught the eye of Europe’s elite and were to be syphoned off was a revealing sign of what lay ahead for Montpellier.
The season has not been that bad by their previous standards. Muddling about in the top half of the table was a good season for Montpellier before their title success. It should be again now, but there is still a sense that they will never quite hit the same heights again after last season’s heroics.
With Girard gone, you wonder who will follow next. The immensely talented Remy Cabella perhaps? Brazilian centre back Hilton? Montpellier still have talented players among their rank but the probability is that they will lose them sooner rather than later. This is the dismantling of a side whose glories are sure to be remembered in French football history, but for now seem long gone. A happy memory of their victory against Auxerre last season, achieved against all the odds, to spit in the faces of the aristocrats from Paris, seems far, far away and long gone. Their achievements may never be repeated, their squad may already be dismantled, but this is a club slowly and surely coming to terms with rediscovering their place in French football.