Can Rene Girard and Montpellier win Ligue 1?

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    Three seasons ago, Montpellier HSC earned promotion from Ligue 2. They then caught the eye with a fifth placed finish and qualification for the Europa League.

    However, the climb up the French League table was halted the next year, as the team contracted a bad case of second season syndrome and finished mid-table.

    Now, they’re back in form once again, this time challenging for the title. This time, however, they’re in a head-to-head battle with moneybags Paris St Germain, following a 2-1 win over Sochaux on the weekend.

    La Palliade could even afford to concede their first goal at the Stade de la Mosson in 2012 as they recorded an impressive 14th home win for the season, thanks to goals from Younes Belhanda and Soulemayne Camara. It was a win that was both comprehensive and comfortable against a side entrenched in a relegation battle at present, but who still boast dangerous counter-attacking talents such as Ryad Boudebouz, Marvin Martin and Modibo Maiga.

    That win had earlier moved Montpellier three points clear of the Parisian giants ahead of Sunday’s Clasico with Marseille at the Parc Des Princes, only for the big spending capital side to draw level at the summit once again, with Alex’s winner sealing a 2-1 win.

    Olympique de Marseille once again play their part in the Ligue 1 title race on Wednesday as they host the side from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The visitors will arrive at the Stade Velodrome knowing that three points against last season’s champions will put them in pole position to win a first ever French league title heading into the final seven games of the season.

    This is remarkable given that this team finished 14th in the division in 2010-11 and have only spent what is believed to be approximately €2 million in the summer in strengthening their squad ahead of this seasons surprising title charge. The majority of that sum was spent on former Lens defender Henri Bedimo, who together with the experienced Brazilian Vitorino Hilton, have formed the most formidable defensive partnership in the competition. 34-year-old Hilton, signed on a free transfer after his deal at Marseille expired in the summer, had also played at Lens for four seasons but before Bedimo really made his name in France’s top flight.

    They also boast the second best attack in the division thanks mainly to 18-goal top scorer of Ligue 1 Olivier Giroud, signed two seasons ago from second division Tours after scoring over 50 goals in three years from 2008/09. The 6”3 striker, known for his physical prowess and ability in the air, is one of the most watched footballers on the continent and won’t be short of suitors in the summer as a possible league winner’s medal, golden boot and likely Euro 2012 call-up would suggest. Add to that, an impressive strike rate at his current club of a goal every two games and seven assists, currently the equal fourth best in the division.

    The 25-year-old might not have scored the hat-trick that he did in the reverse fixture at Sochaux, but his involvement was still true, particularly when his parried shot led to Belhanda’s finish from a swift counter-attack in the fourth minute. Belhanda himself has already caught the eye of many big European sides, and while most of the transfer attention in the summer will surround Europe’s hottest prospect Eden Hazard, it will hardly surprise if the 22-year-old Moroccan is also in the spotlight having enjoyed a true breakthrough season. Best known perhaps for his dribbling and crossing out wide, he’s taken on a more central role this season, allowing him to see more of the ball and provide spark and output in the final third, somewhat of a masterstroke from manager Rene Girard.

    Girard, the mastermind of the Montpellier charge, spent four years as France assistant manager in the period where they won the FIFA World Cup and European Championship. He spent a total of 10 years with the national team, seeing him manage France’s under-16, under-19 and most recently the under-21 team.

    Unsurprisingly, it seems his experiences in that setup has helped him to build a team laced with talented youngsters, who continue to flourish and enjoy their football under his guidance. In his playing career, he was a tenacious midfielder that won three titles with Bordeaux, and was said to be an irritating, under your skin type, that was occasionally nasty in conjunction with his fine technical ability. It’s the reproduction of that fire into his style of management that has helped to develop a mental steeliness into a largely youthful and exciting side who continue to remain grounded despite their efforts thus far.

    That said, it would be a miracle if Montpellier could hold on to win the title and qualify for the Champions League next season. While it would be an incredible feat, it is equally refreshing to onlookers that good management, sensible spending and developing youth can possibly end with a fairytale in a football world dominated by dirty cash and fickle boardrooms.