Taken in isolation, Montpellier’s 2-0 win over Bordeaux on Wednesday night may not look that significant. Bordeaux have been in awful form lately, earning just five points in their last 12 matches as they have struggled badly for goals. However, given the state of the teams at the beginning of the season, it speaks volumes about Montpellier’s improvement under Michel Der Zakarian that they would go to Bordeaux and expect to win there for the first time since 2003.
Bordeaux were impressive last season, finishing sixth in Ligue 1, qualifying for the Europa League and playing some attractive football under Jocelyn Gourvennec. Given the promise of an up-and-coming manager and a young squad, the club invested heavily in the summer, signing Nicolas De Préville from Lille and the Brazilian duo Otávio and Jonathan Cafú. Montpellier, by contrast, sold their two most influential attackers – Steve Mounié to Huddersfield and Ryad Boudebouz to Real Betis – and replaced them with players such as Pedro Mendes and Giovanni Sio, who seemed more likely to make up the numbers than improve the squad significantly.
That sort of parsimony is nothing new for Montpellier, though; even after their miraculous title five years ago, they spent little before competing in the Champions League. Of a bigger concern, however, was how the club would develop under Der Zakarian, with many tipping the southern side for relegation. A former club captain and a long-time assistant following his retirement from playing, the fiery Armenian manager had done well with limited means at Nantes, but his hiring this summer, coming after he had failed to earn promotion with Reims despite having one of the biggest budgets in Ligue 2, seemed the very definition of unimaginative.
Now six months into his tenure, Der Zakarian has made his doubters look foolish. He has fashioned Ligue 1’s best defence, with only 13 goals conceded in 19 matches, and has steered his unfashionable side into seventh place. A frustrating slip-up against Metz at the weekend notwithstanding, Montpellier have approached the season with an unremitting focus that, for Der Zakarian, is in the image of the club’s former owner, the late Louis Nicollin. “He had deep respect for people who worked hard,” said Der Zakarian of the Nicollin. “Loulou transmitted strong values: generosity, hard work, self-sacrifice. That spirit is still there at the club, whether in the office or on the pitch.”
No player embodies that spirit more than Vitorino Hilton, the side’s captain. Despite turning 40 earlier this season, the Brazilian has been hugely impressive at the heart of Der Zakarian’s three-man defence. He was suspended for the trip to Bordeaux but has thrived with Mendes and youngster Nordi Mukiele next to him. Hilton has long been one of Ligue 1’s better centre-backs, but his continued defiance of time has much to do with Der Zakarian’s improving his fellow defenders individually as well as collectively.
Mukiele arrived in January from Stade Lavallois with a decent reputation, but was considered more of a marauding full-back than the solid and versatile presence into which he has evolved. Likewise Mendes, a decent player but one who struggled to get a game at Rennes following the emergence of Joris Gnagnon last season. That Der Zakarian has moulded these two into sublime foils for Hilton has been chief among his achievements, but he’s also worked wonders with several other recent acquisitions.
Der Zakarian’s sides have always had a reputation for being solid at the back, but this season he has expanded his repertoire, also improving a cadre of talented young attackers as well. Jonathan Ikoné was on the scoresheet for the first time this season against Bordeaux, a fitting reward for his dynamic, high-energy performance. The Paris Saint-Germain loanee has missed the last three months or so with injury, but after an inconsistent spell under Jean-Louis Gasset last season, he looks to have fully invested in Der Zakarian’s aggressive, high-pressing system. Junior Sambia, another youngster on loan, from Niort, impressed in a more advanced role. He looks like an increasingly well-rounded presence in midfield despite having only played a more defensive role in previous seasons.
Montpellier are still in both domestic cups and their promising start could yet be undone by fixture congestion. Player transfers also loom; Mukiele in particular has been linked with several foreign clubs, including Benfica. For now, though, the way that Der Zakarian has evoked the spirit of the combative Nicollin to develop a fighting spirit for the club which has meant so much to him is nothing short of miraculous.
• The time has come surely for Jocelyn Gourvennec and Bordeaux to part ways. Having assembled a vibrant and competitive looking squad, Bordeaux were expected to challenge for a top-four spot this season but the 2-0 home defeat to Montpellier was their fifth in a row and 10th in their last 13, meaning they finish the first half of the season in lowly 15th. The glorious Malcom aside, Gourvennec has been unable to cajole any fight, fluidity or any semblance of solidarity from his players since a crushing 6-2 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in September. Gourvennec seems to have lost the players along with the fans who continued their demands for his resignation. Gourvennec surely needs a Christmas miracle if he is to start 2018 as Bordeaux’s manager.
• Nice had been written off. Aside from their 4-0 drubbing of champions Monaco in September, Lucien Favre’s admittedly decimated team struggled in the early part of the season to find the irrepressible intensity that made them title chasers last season. They were in the relegation zone a few weeks ago but their form and place in the table both have a more familiar look now. Four straight wins in the league and a 1-1 draw at Lille on Wednesday night means they will finish 2017 in the top six. Mario Balotelli’s form has proved crucial; he has 10 goals this season and was on the scoresheet in all four of those wins. It has taken Favre a little time but balance has been restored at the Allianz Riviera and the top four clubs will be looking nervously over their shoulders in 2018.
• A 3-1 defeat to Nice earlier this month had seemingly killed off Metz’s already faint hopes of survival. The defeat left them with just five points, 14 adrift of safety and with a squad that was not able to recover from losing its best players in the summer. Philippe Hinschberger’s inevitable sacking changed nothing as the team continued their woeful form under new coach Frédéric Hantz. However, miraculously, now Metz have hope. They have won seven points from their last three games to close the gap to eight points. Their superb 3-0 win over Strasbourg – who beat Paris Saint-Germain a few weeks ago – is their first home win and best display of their season so far. The notoriously wayward forward signings, Nolan Roux and Emmanuel Rivière, have finally found their feet and the net, while the reintroduction Florent Mollet, one of few midfielders capable of creativity, has complemented Mathieu Dossevi and Renaud Cohade. Metz could defy expectations and retain their Ligue 1 status if they can keep this form up.
Amiens 0-1 Nantes, Angers 2-1 Dijon, Bordeaux 0-2 Montpellier, Guingamp 2-1 St Etienne, Lille 1-1 Nice, Marseille 3-1 Troyes, Metz 3-0 Strasbourg, Monaco 2-1 Rennes, Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 Caen, Toulouse 1-2 Lyon.