In the space of 18 months, Montpellier had gone from champions of France to the depths of mediocrity, but the return of Rolland Courbis as coach has given the whole club a boost and results are finally turning around.
"Pulling off a week like that would have been complicated even in a dream," said Courbis on Saturday night, after Montpellier had just won for the third time in eight days, extending their unbeaten start to 2014. Their 3-1 home win against Nice came at the end of a pleasing display of attacking football which featured goals by Mbaye Niang, Vitorino Hilton and Souleymane Camara.
Coming on the back of a 2-0 triumph at fellow strugglers Sochaux, Montpellier have now won as many times in two league games as they had in their previous 20. They have moved six points clear of the Ligue 1 relegation zone and are suddenly looking on for a mid-table finish rather than a fight against the drop. "This Team Cannot Go Down," said the headline in sports daily L'Equipe on Sunday.
As if that was not good enough, Montpellier also stunned Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup last midweek, winning 2-1 at the Parc des Princes to inflict a first home defeat on PSG since November 2012 and end their hopes of a domestic clean sweep in the process.
Courbis celebrated that remarkable success by blowing a kiss and pointing a V-sign towards the presidential tribune of the Parc des Princes. Since replacing the sacked Jean Fernandez at the start of December, Courbis has overseen just one defeat in seven matches, and that was a 1-0 reverse at the hands of Saint-Etienne in his first game.
It is all a far cry from the desperate state in which the team found themselves as Fernandez resigned in the wake of a 2-0 home defeat to Lorient. Having been champions in 2012, Montpellier may never have looked like defending their title last season, but they still finished a respectable ninth before seeing title-winning coach René Girard depart at the end of his contract. Now the club's slide back to mediocrity was accelerating, and the danger was that it could end in relegation.
Something needed to be done, and so Nicollin looked to Courbis, bringing the 60-year-old back for a second spell in charge. In his previous stint, he turned around a side struggling in Ligue 2 and led them to promotion back to the top flight in 2009.
Having laid the foundations for the successes enjoyed under Girard, Courbis left, going on to spend time in prison for his role in financial irregularities dating back to his days with Marseille, before focusing on media work upon his release. Now, returning to the Stade de la Mosson felt like the right thing to do.
"Montpellier are a club close to my heart," said Courbis, who was appointed on a two-and-a-half-year deal. "The priority is beating the drop, but that doesn't necessarily mean finishing 17th. We will then need to keep a backbone of players at the club to become an outsider for next season."
Courbis has not made any radical changes, but he has shown himself to be an excellent leader of men and sorted out a dreadful disciplinary record that saw Montpellier pick up 10 red cards in the opening 17 matches of the campaign.
That tally has not been added to, and the queue to the treatment room has shortened thanks to the work done by Stéphane Paganelli, the physical trainer brought back to the club by Courbis. He has also been helped by the arrival of Niang, the talented 19-year-old signed on loan until the end of the season from AC Milan and who has scored three goals from just four starts.
However, Courbis is well aware that it will be difficult to keep his best players, especially the excellent Rémy Cabella. The 23-year-old Corsican playmaker has indicated that he is ready to move on, with Newcastle United known to be very keen to do business, albeit probably not before the summer. Courbis, though, has other ideas for a player who surely can't be far away from a full international call-up.
"Newcastle for me is not the club for Cabella. If he improves little details then in six months he could go to a Chelsea, a Tottenham or an Arsenal," he told Canal Plus on Sunday, although his comments are undoubtedly motivated by the desire to hold on to his star man for as long as possible.