Rock-solid Montpellier fighting for Europe in French league
PARIS (AP) — Whenever Montpellier travels along the Mediterranean coast to play at Marseille, the memories of that epic match in 1998 invariably come flooding back.
The match, considered to be one of the most dramatic games in the history of French soccer, saw Montpellier jump out to a 4-0 halftime lead over the 1993 European Cup champions at the Stade Velodrome.
“The game is lost,” then-coach Rolland Courbis told his Marseille players in the dressing room. “All you can do now is salvage your pride.”
They did more than that.
Forty-five minutes and five goals later — including two from France international Christophe Dugarry and a stoppage-time penalty by Laurent Blanc — Marseille had turned things around to win 5-4.
The chances of a repeat on Sunday are slim, mainly because Montpellier has the league’s second-best defense behind runaway leader Paris Saint-Germain and plenty to play for with seven games left this season.
Marseille, meanwhile, is trailing Monaco by five points but still pushing for a second-place finish, making the contest an intriguing match-up.
Standing in sixth place a point behind Rennes, Montpellier has lost only once in its last 13 league games and is focusing on qualifying for the Europa League. Montpellier’s good season is in many ways related to the work of coach Michel Der Zakarian, a former defender with a down-to-earth approach.
“Not conceding chances is something that makes me happy. If we finish a game without conceding, I’m delighted,” Der Zakarian said. “We’re a real pain to play against.”
That strategy paid off earlier this season when Montpellier put on a gritty display to hold Paris Saint-Germain to a goalless draw as the league leaders dropped their first points of the season.
“Our aim was simply to improve on last season. For me personally, I wanted the team to defend better because they conceded 68 goals in the last campaign,” said Der Zakarian, who took charge of the team last year. “Now we have the second best defensive record in the league. I hope we will continue to be defensively solid until the end of the season.”
In the five-man defense, Jerome Roussillon has been in impressive form. At 25, the former youth international has matured into an elegant left back coveted by the top French clubs, while veteran Vitorino Hilton has been anchoring the defense all season despite his aging legs. Goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte has also played a major role with his 227 saves in 31 games, making case for a call-up to the France squad ahead of the World Cup.
“He’s got everything. He’s good with high balls, good with his feet, reads the game well,” Der Zakarian said about Lecomte, who joined from Lorient. “We’re delighted to have brought in a goalkeeper who wins points for us.”
Montpellier has also found firepower recently, with five goals in its past two games, including a pair by in-from Giovanni Sio in a 3-1 win at Caen last weekend.
The other good news for Der Zakarian’s players is the poor state of Marseille’s squad, which is decimated by injuries. Although winger Florian Thauvin is expected to make his return from a hamstring injury, Adil Rami remains doubtful with a calf problem while ’keeper Steve Mandanda has been ruled out for up to six weeks.