The title run of the team awash with Middle Eastern money is faltering. The difference, in France, is that advantage is being taken not by the league's most prestigious team but by one of the least.
Montpellier HSC have never won Ligue 1, their best finish being third in 1987-88. Their average attendance is eighth in the league, their annual budget 14th. But they are top, ahead of Paris St-Germain, on goal difference, and have a game in hand, to be played against Marseilles one week today.
Given the imbalances of modern football, it is quite an achievement – all the more so, in a French league where the Qatari Investment Authority's injections into Paris St-Germain loom over everything else. This summer PSG spent a French record fee of €43m (£36m) on Palermo's Javier Pastore. Their official budget for the season was €150m, joint top with Olympique Lyonnais. Montpellier get by on €33m, just over one fifth of PSG's funds.
A title race pitting exorbitant wealth against provincial thrift will inevitably push fans only one way. "I think there is a certain charm to Montpellier," Tom Williams, a French football journalist for AFP, told The Independent. "People are fascinated by the notion that this unspectacular provincial club could pip Paris St-Germain and their billions to the title. People are enjoying the fact PSG are tripping up. And Montpellier would be the perfect team to deny them because of their background."
While PSG are a metropolitan club fuelled by foreign money, Montpellier are so provincial that they cannot always command the attentions of even the locals. Montpellier, like many towns in the south of France, is devoted to rugby first. The football team play in the Stade de la Mosson, which could hold 32,900 people but usually only has to put up with half of that. Montpellier's average gate this year is 16,826, less than half of that at PSG or Marseilles. "It's only very marginally picked up now that they have a chance of winning a title," Williams said.
Their history can certainly not match that of Marseilles, a few miles along the coast. Their all-time top goalscorer is Laurent Blanc, one of France's all-time great defenders, with 84. "Montpellier are known for having the odd iconic player," Williams said, pointing to their peak in the late 1980s, with Blanc, Carlos Valderrama and Eric Cantona taking them to French Cup success in 1990. "On a national scale, they've never really been one of the teams that people look out for, except perhaps for that brief spell."
If Montpellier have missed out on some of the modernisation of 21st century club football, that is not all bad. They are fortunate to still be owned by Louis Nicollin, the controversial and abrasive waste disposal magnate who has owned MHSC since 1974. Known as either "Foufou Nicollin" or "Loulou Nicollin" – such are his eccentricities – he literally dwarfs everyone else at the club, taking up two places as he sits on the bench for home games.
"He's a typical old-school club president," Williams said. "Lots of clubs, when they started out, were presided over by these very avuncular local businessmen. The idea was that the club would confer glory on the local region. He's as old-school as they come. He's most known for these colourful outbursts. He speaks his mind. Before Christmas he said he'd 'stab himself in the arse with a sausage' if Montpellier won the league."
Nicollin presided over Montpellier's rise from the regional third tier up to Blanc-inspired success in the 1980s. Another five-year spell in Ligue 2, from 2004 to 2009, has been followed by very impressive performances under René Girard, now in his third season there.
Girard is well suited given Montpellier's financial dependence on youth development. He was assistant to French national coach Roger Lemerre before working with the under-16s, under-19s and under-21s. "His pedigree of working with young players is pretty much second to none in France," Williams said. "That fits with Montpellier's business model as they don't have money to spend on superstar players."
Fortunately for Girard, he has some excellent young players to work with. Montpellier won the French youth cup (the Coupe Gambardella) in 2009, and that generation form the basis for this year's first team. The best of them is Younes Belhanda, a 22-year-old French-born Morocco midfielder who plays behind lone striker Olivier Giroud in a 4-4-1-1 system. "Belhanda's been a real star this season, probably with Eden Hazard the outstanding playmaker in Ligue 1," Williams said. "Giroud is the guy who scores all the goals but Belhanda is the guy who makes them tick."
Giroud, with 18 league goals so far, is the division's top scorer and is rated by France Football magazine as the second best player this season (behind Hazard). He could well be playing Premier League football next season; Nicollin accepts the need to sell at times.
Following Giroud out might be Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, another academy product and France under-21 international, who has impressed enough to be usefully marketable this summer. One player who has come in and done well is John Utaka, until relatively recently of Steve Cotterill's Portsmouth.
With just nine games left, Montpellier can continue to dream – and perhaps keep praying. "We never would have imagined this," Nicollin said this week. "To be champions seems impossible. If we become champions of France I will be crazy. I am under no illusions, but it's true – the Lord is with us."
Facts in figures
18 Ligue 1 goals this year for French striker Olivier Giroud.
16,826 Montpellier's average attendance, which is eighth in Ligue 1.
3rd Montpellier's highest ever Ligue 1 finish, in 1987-88.
33m Montpellier's budget in euros in 2011-12, compared with PSG's 150m.
40,791 Average PSG crowd.Reuse content