Michel Der Zakarian sparks Montpellier’s revival in France
The old French saying “the best soups are made in old pots” certainly holds true for Montpellier.
The family soccer club in southern France has a myriad of former players and coaches that are part of the organizational chart, or ready to come back and help out when things go wrong.
That was the case in February when Michel Der Zakarian — known as “Der Zak” in the region — was reappointed as coach following the firing of Romain Pitau.
The 2012 champions were only two points clear of the relegation zone following five losses in six matches and Montpellier president Laurent Nicollin thought the timing was right for a shakeup.
“I hope and I think he is the man for the moment,” Nicollin said.
His hopes have been fulfilled.
Since Der Zakarian’s return, less than two years after his departure, Montpellier is unbeaten, winning five of the six league games it has played. With 16 points taken, the club has been the best team in the league over that period.
Ahead of Friday’s trip to second-place Marseille, Der Zakarian’s team looks all but guaranteed to stay in the top division next season, holding a 13-point lead over the highest relegation-zone club. With 10 matches left to play, Paris Saint-Germain has a seven-point lead over Marseille before hosting Lyon on Sunday.
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“To be sure of staying, we need two more wins,” Der Zakarian said.
As a player, the 60-year-old former no-nonsense defender spent nearly a decade in Montpellier, getting the captain’s armband when Laurent Blanc left for Napoli and leading the club to victory in the League Cup in 1992.
After he retired, Der Zakarian joined Montpellier’s technical staff and learned his trade as a coach with the reserve teams. Disappointed not to get the top coaching job, Der Zakarian left for Nantes in 2006.
He finally was appointed Montpellier coach in 2017. His tenure lasted four seasons, leading his players to a sixth-place finish while building a team that was renowned for its defensive qualities.
Der Zakarian returned with the same gritty philosophy and his current team has conceded only two goals in six matches.
“The club has always had fighting values, that’s what I expect from the team,” he said.
The solid defending under Der Zakarian has been made possible by the recent addition of goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte, another former Montpellier player who has already made 31 saves since his return to Stade de La Mosson. Two other recruits, left back Issiaga Sylla and center back Boubakar “Kiki” Kouyaté, have also impressed.
Up front, Montpellier has found its firepower with 13 goals in six games as playmaker Teji Savanier recovered his influence in midfield while up-and-coming striker Elye Wahi piled up the goals.
After scoring twice in a 2-1 win over Clermont before the international break, the 20-year-old forward has 12 league goals — his best tally over a single season. Gifted with speed and great technical skills, Wahi is reportedly sparking interest from top Premier League clubs, including Arsenal and Tottenham.
Der Zakarian has warned possible buyers they would need to spend a lot to secure Wahi’s services.
“The kid, he’s 20, and full of talent,” Der Zakarian told France Bleu Herault radio this week. “That costs a lot. For me, minimum 25 or 30 million (euros; $27-$32.5 million).”
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