Four days before their first ever match in the Champions League, Montpellier were given something of a history lesson by two-time European Cup finalists Reims on Friday night. The home side's 3-1 victory condemned Montpellier to a third defeat in five games and left the French champions 11 points off the pace in Ligue 1. Those of a mischievous disposition may have felt inclined to wonder why it is Montpellier, and not Reims - twice beaten by Real Madrid in European Cup finals in the 1950s - who are preparing to host Arsenal in Europe's top club competition on Tuesday.
Trepidation has taken hold in the Montpellier ranks — there was an altercation between Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Marco Estrada after Friday's game, and the players have been instructed not to talk to the media. René Girard has been at a loss to explain his side's shortcomings. "I'm very disappointed. I'm not used to blaming my players, but what's happening to us at the moment is quite distressing," said the Montpellier coach on Friday. "It's the first time that I find myself asking lots of questions. We've lost our values. I'm choosing my words carefully, but we can be ashamed of ourselves tonight."
Montpellier's squad has not been substantially weakened since they won the first league title in the club's history last season, with Olivier Giroud's sale to Arsenal the only major departure, but their summer signings have yet to capture the imagination. While Anthony Mounier, a shrewd £2.62 million acquisition from Nice, has been held back by injury, the performances of former Toulouse centre-back Daniel Congré have bordered on the calamitous, and he was partly at fault for two of Reims' three goals on Friday.
Argentine striker Emanuel Herrera was signed from Chilean club Unión Española to replace Giroud and he is still finding his feet, having been given little time to adapt to European football. Girard spoke optimistically of Herrera being able to "slip into our style of play" but despite goals against Lorient and Sochaux, the hulking frontman is not yet on his team-mates' wavelength. Montpellier are not a team who create a vast amount of chances and in Giroud they lost a striker who seemed to find the net more often than not when presented with a sight of goal (not that that has been the case since he moved to the Emirates).
Girard is also finding, to his cost, that his squad does not appear to have the necessary depth to support twin assaults on domestic and European competitions. With playmaker Younes Belhanda out of sorts, the champions looked short of guile in attack against Reims until the 55th-minute introduction of goalscorer Rémy Cabella, while there was a lack of authority in defence in the absence of rested captain Yanga-Mbiwa. Their European experience, meanwhile, is meagre in the extreme. Of the current squad, only Mounier and former Marseille centre-back Vitorino Hilton have ever sampled continental competition before.
Never shy of voicing an opinion, club president Louis Nicollin upbraided his players in the aftermath of their 1-0 loss at home to Marseille at the end of August, inviting them to "pack their suitcases and earn their money elsewhere" if they no longer felt committed to the cause. Nicollin was all smiles after the subsequent 3-1 win at Sochaux, but the most recent reverse suggests the Montpellier malaise may be too profound to be cured by the occasional presidential pique.
Despite his side's troubling start to the season, Nicollin believes Montpellier will rise to the occasion in the Champions League, explaining: "They're so scared of looking like jokers that they'll be good." Girard, though, is understandably more cautious. "We need to wake up quickly," he said. "Because if we don't, we're going to fall from a great height on Tuesday."
Montpellier had the best defence in Ligue 1 last season but have already shipped eight goals in five matches and Girard will have returned from watching the 6-1 shellacking that Arsenal dealt to Southampton on Saturday with plenty of food for thought. Giroud has promised not to celebrate if he finds the net against his former club, but he will not fail to notice how much the atmosphere at Stade de la Mosson has changed since those heady title celebrations in May.
Based in Paris and working for Agence France-Presse, Tom Williams will be blogging for us on all matters Ligue 1 throughout the season.