2009, 2 February – Montpellier Hérault Sport Club have just won a tough fixture away in Boulogne, against one of their promotion rivals in Ligue 2.
A seemingly easy 3:0 victory with all the goals scored in the first half, two by Argentine Alberto “Tino” Costa, who’s never played professional football in his home country and found his way to France through the Guadalupen league, and one by captain Nenad Dzodic, a misunderstood character, who only managed 5 caps for Yugoslavia in international football, but who’s been a key figure for his team in French 2nd tier football.
The result left Montpellier sitting 4th, two points away from 3rd, the last promoting spot. An over achievement in a sense that the side was seriously struggling against relegation only two seasons ago.
In the end a record crowd gathered at Montpellier’s stadium, Stade de la Mosson, for the last match of the season versus Strasbourg in a winner takes all match. Tino Costa’s name was again on every body’s lips as the man scored the winning 2:1 goal and ensured his team would make a come-back to the top level of French football, Ligue 1, for the first time since 2003.
With not much transfer activity in the summer and the loss of manager Rolland Courbis, expectations were low and the side, who’s best ever finish in the league is 3rd, which happened way back in 1987/88 led by a young and talented Laurent Blanc and Cameroon legend Roger Milla, was mainly considered as favorites to go straight back down. But the fairy tale, which started in 2007, doesn’t seem like stopping just yet.
2:0 win over Marseille last Saturday, was the side’s 13th victory in the league, a result only bettered by defending champions Bordeaux. Currently sitting 2nd in the league table and with Bordeaux not being their usual automatic selves lately, which has seen their lead being cut only to six points, a very unfamiliar team might end up being their challengers for the title.
Montpellier are a great team in every sense of the word. While the defensive record isn’t the best, 25 goals conceded, the back four is literally rock solid when it decides to turn up, which has happened 9 times this season and Montpellier has managed to win all of the matches where they’ve kept a clean sheet at the back.
When new manager Rene Girard took over the reigns in the summer, he spoke about his main goal of keeping talented right-back Mapou Yanga-M’Biwa at the club. The 20-year old, who’s been in the first team for two years now, is assisted by seasoned professionals. Mean, no nonsense central defenders from the Balkans, the aforementioned Dzodic and Bosnian Emir Spahic, have proven that you don’t have to be the most technically gifted and talented defenders to be successful, when you get the job done.
The same pattern runs through the rest of the playing field. Girard has done a very good job continuing the plan of his presuccesor Courbis, mixing young players, straight out of Montpellier’s own youth system, with experienced ones. Vice-captain Romain Pitau acts like a perfect mentor to his more younger midfield mates in Jamel Saihi and Younès Belhanda.
Attack is being lead by Colombian Victor Montano. Montano’s yet to get recognition on the international stage, but finished second only to Boulogne’s Gregory Thil in the scorers charts in Ligue 2 last season with 15 goals. The 25-year old is also Montpellier’s top scorer this term with 7 so far. There’s also Souleymane Diawara, one of the Senegalese World Cup 2002 heroes.
And a star might have been born on Saturday. It was Moroccan-born Karim Ait-Fana’s goal at the beginning of the 2nd half, which put Montpellier in a real cruise position with Marseille only being limited to poor quality crosses from their full-backs. The man, who’s favorite flower is a tulip, showed real composure skipping past three Marseille defenders before finishing it cooly into Steve Mandanda’s net.
All of it is strung together by deep-lying play maker Costa. Tino Costa finished last season on top of Ligue 2 assists table with 12 goals being a result of his clever vision. The 25-year old is also a good set piece specialist. The corner on Saturday, which lead to a Benoit Cheyrou own-goal, it might sound cliché, but it was simply undefendable.
If he can keep up with his good performances, it won’t be only Lens and Toulouse after his signature like it was past summer. And would he even want to leave? If he and his teammates can continue their sensational form until the end of the season, it might anymore not be Bastia and Vannes turning up at Stade de la Mosson next September. It might be the likes of Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Manchester United in the Champions League.