Pitchside Europe

Rivalry fades as Montpellier become mediocre again

Montpellier's Younes Belhanda fights for the ball with Paris St Germain's Blaise Matuiudi

Five days after seeing their Champions League dream brought to a premature end, Montpellier renewed acquaintances with Paris Saint-Germain in circumstances that contrasted vastly with the last meeting of the two sides back in February.

The 2-2 draw between the teams at the Parc des Princes nearly nine months ago confirmed that René Girard's side had the necessary attributes to go on and win the Ligue 1 title for the first time in their history.

Big-spending PSG had met their match in a provincial club with little previous history of success. Their rivalry, both on and off the field, shaped what was a thrilling last season. "The entire country wants us to win. We are an ordinary club, not all glitz and glamour," Montpellier goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourdren said pointedly in March.

And win they did, but while PSG have continued to grow since then, and are on course to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League, Montpellier have drifted back into the realms of mediocrity.

After the 3-1 defeat to Olympiacos in Greece last Tuesday, Girard gave a damning assessment of his side's performance in Europe, saying: "We have been put in our place. It was an open group, but not for us. We haven't been up to the standard required."

Five points adrift of third place with two matches remaining, Montpellier seem certain to finish bottom of their section, and there will be little but pride to play for when they travel to London to take on Arsenal next week.

Sports daily L'Equipe spoke of a "brutal return to earth" for the team that won the title in May.

Of course, expectations of Montpellier were not high as they came into their first ever Champions League campaign.

Nobody realistically expected them to mount a successful defence of their domestic title either, but a stable, well-run club that had kept hold of almost all of their championship-winning squad were seen as one of the more likely challengers for PSG this season.

Alas, it has not worked out like that. It was tempting to wonder what was left of last season's rivalry as Montpellier welcomed the capital giants to the Stade de la Mosson having won just three of their first 11 games.

They lay just a point clear of the relegation zone at kick-off following their worst start to a top-flight season in a decade, and were looking over their shoulders rather than up towards the summit.

"The fire will start if we lose against Paris. We are closer to the relegation zone than we are to eighth place. There is real danger," warned Montpellier president Louis Nicollin.

There was certainly not much expectation among the Montpellier fans, with more than 10,000 empty seats at La Mosson, although one member of the club's board blamed the lack of interest on the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was missing from Carlo Ancelotti's side due to suspension.

The game itself was conditioned by the early sending-off of PSG captain Mamadou Sakho for a professional foul on former Paris reserve-team striker Gaëtan Charbonnier after just ten minutes.

Put under pressure by a woeful Marco Verratti pass, Sakho clearly tugged at the striker's shirt, although he wasn't the last man, with Thiago Silva racing back to cover. The decision of referee Clément Turpin was not a popular one in the visitors' ranks.

"We always say that the players and the clubs must be professional, but so should the referees, and today they were not," raged PSG sporting director Leonard. "I'm worried. With us, whenever there is a doubt, the red card comes out."

Despite the sending-off, PSG's ten men remained a threat on the counterattack and took the lead thanks to a wonderful chip from Maxwell. Montpellier responded after the restart and the excellent Rémy Cabella equalised.

On the ascendancy, they might even have gone on to win the game after that, but the dismissal of Younès Belhanda for a second yellow card midway through the second half evened up the contest and both sides settled for a draw.

It was a result that allowed PSG to end the weekend on top of the pile again, while Montpellier continue to languish in the bottom half.

Girard's side gave a good account of themselves, but these teams are no longer competing on an even footing.

Andrew Scott - Pitchside Europe