Montpellier Herault Sport Club went five points clear at the top of Ligue 1 at the weekend when they defeated Toulouse in a hard-fought contest.
Lille’s defeat of Paris Saint-Germain on the same weekend mean the gap between the exciting newcomers and the super-rich Qatar-owned club from the capital widened.
Lille closed the gap between themselves and PSG to two points as they continued to recover form a stuttering beginning to the defence of their title from last year.
Montpellier haven’t won the title yet but Lille’s fortunes should serve as a warning to them ahead of what is likely to be a busy summer.
Le Dogues’ triumph last year was quite unexpected but was the product of a young squad gelling at just the right time, playing a brand of football that was fast, attacking and exciting.
Montpellier’s success is proving to be similar in many ways, as players who before this season had only shown glimpses of their possible effectiveness were starting to realise much of their potential simultaneously.
This has led to a team that finished in the bottom half of the table last year looking like being crowned Ligue 1 champions in four games time – a win against Evian would take them eight points clear and put pressure on PSG to win Wednesday night against Saint-Etienne.
Olivier Giroud is the league’s top scorer with 20 goals so far this season and has been a revelation, leading to inevitable links with moves abroad and the Premier League.
He is playing only his second season in France’s top flight but has the look of a seasoned campaigner, impressing on the international stage in Les Bleus’ friendly win over Germany.
Then there is attacking midfielder/support striker Younes Belhanda, who has been changed from a defensive midfielder, to a winger, to his current position over the course of his short career.
The Moroccan has shown impressive guile, dribbling and skill in the vein of Eden Hazard at Lille.
Hazard has been courting Europe’s big sides since last summer and looks set for a move come the season’s end; a transfer that could quite possibly put the final nail in the coffin of such a talented championship wining side.
Montpellier’s captain is Mapou Yanga-M’Biwa and has been linked with teams such as Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle United and Bayern Munich.
Yanga-M’Biwa is an exciting young talent at centre-back who has made himself the leader of Rene Girard’s team with his powerful running and technical ability – the team would lose a great deal of its drive if he were to leave.
Lille can attest to the effects of your best players leaving and how damaging it can be on the harmony of a squad.
It has taken them much of the season to realign themselves after the high-profile departures of the summer following their league and cup double.
Hazard’s attacking partner Gervinho actually scored a greater number of goals than the Belgian and posted the same number of assists in the league campaign but he left for Arsenal in the summer.
Lille’s vice-captain Yohan Cabaye was another one who chose to move on to pastures new and made the surprise decision to join Newcastle United, which is looking to be a shrewd move since Alan Pardew’s side are currently challenging for Champions League football.
Adil Rami’s transfer to Valencia created a large hole in defence that has taken a while to adjust to.
The fact that they have come back into the race as outsiders is testament to the work of Rudi Garcia.
The addition of Joe Cole on loan from Liverpool has turned out to be a good move for all parties, but it is really the continued development of Hazard that has helped drag them back up the table.
The 21-year-old has now scored 17 Ligue goals, while he has also laid another 13 goals for team-mates – he is almost single-handedly keeping his side in the race for a second successive Champions League qualification.
The parallels between the two sides are plain to see and this year’s pace-setters will be hoping to avoid the exodus that greeted last year’s champions.
The lack of cash in the French championship (except in Paris, of course) makes it difficult for side such as Montpellier and Lille to keep hold of their best players when bigger sides come calling.
Football is rarely a minnows game, so it is refreshing to have a surprise such has been seen in the past two years.
Established clubs rarely get toppled and Montpellier, as with Lille before them, will find it hard to keep the wolves from the door.
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