Over the course of the two-and-a-half seasons, fans of Montpellier HSC have had quite the journey with their young club. The Stade de la Mosson faithful have experienced the highs of their first-ever Ligue 1 title and Champions League football, only for a slide in performances to result in a relegation threat this term.
Only formed in 1974, the south coast side has had stellar international names such as Laurent Blanc, Éric Cantona, Roger Milla and Carlos Valderrama grace their books over the years. However, undoubtedly the best moment in the club’s short history came in the 2011-12 campaign, where they overcame the financial might of Paris Saint-Germain, and the odds, to become French champions for the first time.
The side was led by powerful centre forward Olivier Giroud, who finished the campaign as Ligue 1’s top goalscorer with 21 strikes. However, the France international was sold to Arsenal the following summer, and has not since been replaced with anyone of similar quality.
The 2012-13 season saw Montpellier thrown into Champions League football, where the side was ruthlessly found out after a summer of moderate strengthening from colourful owner Louis Nicollin. Two draws from six matches against Arsenal, Schalke and Olympiacos saw MHSC eliminated from the competition, while domestic form dipped as a result.
A finish of ninth saw Montpellier return to the mid-table anonymity that the fans had become used to, while other stars from the title-winning side started to get snapped up by bigger fish. Central defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, who has the rock around which the side’s rearguard was built, was sold to Newcastle in January 2013. He was followed out the door last summer by mercurial playmaker Younès Belhanda, who moved to Dynamo Kiev despite reported interest from England and Italy.
The most significant departure was not on the pitch, but in the dugout. The architect of Montpellier’s rise to prominence, René Girard, was snapped up by Lille in the summer after Rudi Garcia left for Roma and the club have taken backward steps since.
The experienced Jean Fernandez lasted less than six months, and was replaced in December by Girard’s predecessor Rolland Courbis, who now finds himself well-and-truly in a relegation scrap.
This season has been distinctly forgettable for the Stade de la Mosson fans, with the heady days of title success seeming like a distant memory. MHSC have only won two of their 20 Ligue 1 games at the time of writing, and sit precariously in 17th place – a solitary point above the bottom three.
The squad that Courbis has returned to looks distinctly lacking in the star quality that allowed Montpellier to shock the rest of France in 2011-12.
Gifted attacking midfielder Rémy Cabella is the undoubted diamond in the rough, with captivating individual displays reducing the dramatic downturn in MHSC’s fortunes. The 23-year-old’s performances have not gone unnoticed however, with interest from England and a confession from the player that this will be his last season with the club.
A shrewd January loan move may well prove to be the side’s saving grace, as prodigious AC Milan centre forward M’Baye Niang will spend the rest of the campaign at the club. The 19-year-old is a superstar in the making, and gives the side the necessary penetration and threat in the final third to get them out of trouble. The teenager netted on his debut in a 1-1 draw against Monaco, and Courbis will hope there are plenty more goals to come from the attacker.
With the financial might of the likes of PSG and Monaco starting to dominate French football, it may well be some time before Montpellier find themselves as champions again. It has been a rollercoaster journey for the club, who are learning some harsh lessons this season after the romance of the last 18 months.