Montpellier and Sochaux stepped onto the Stade de la Mosson on Saturday with distinctly different ambitions.
The home side was top of France’s Ligue 1 and chasing its first national title. Montpellier had 60 points and a goal difference of +24, sitting just ahead of Paris Saint-Germain due to the capital club’s inferior goal difference.
Sochaux were second-bottom of the league (19th) with 30 points and desperate to avoid relegation.
Having played one less game than the other title contenders PSG and Lille, Montpellier had a huge opportunity to take another step towards the title. The south coast club’s home form has been brutal this season, winning 13 of their 15 games at Stade de la Mosson. In contrast, Sochaux had only won two games away heading into Saturday’s match.
But the proud club from near the Swiss border was in good form. Youth coach Eric Hely had stepped up to the main job on March 6 to replace Mecha Bazdarevic and since then Sochaux had won three of four games.
Sochaux has a decent record of punching above their weight. Based in the town of Montbeliard, which has a population of 26,000, Sochaux has a fine pedigree in youth football (the club’s nickname is Les Lionceaux or ‘The Lion Cubs’). It is one of just five foundation clubs that is currently playing in the French first division. Plus since the club returned to Ligue 1 in the 2001/02 season, it has won the Coupe de la Ligue in 2004 and the Coupe de France in 2007. Sochaux also has two league titles to its name, although both were in the 1930s.
Sochaux went into their game against Montpellier without captain and lead goalkeeper Teddy Richert after he injured his eye in his side’s 2-1 victory over Brest on March 31. For the home side, right back Cyril Jeunechamp returned from suspension and Marco Estrada was preferred in midfield to Benjamin Stambouli.
Frantic start but technique is lacking
Sochaux’s newly acquired confidence was on display as soon as the game began. The visiting side was packed with youngsters and their energy provided a frantic start to the game. Sochaux attacked at every opportunity, driving forward at full speed and this left gaps in behind that Montpellier tried to exploit on the counter-attack.
The home side succeeded in the fourth minute. Montpellier broke down the left after a corner. John Utaka received the ball inside his own half, dribbled through the middle and, from the centre circle, threaded a pass to Souleymane Camara on the right wing. The Senegalese attacker played a first-time cross in behind Sochaux’s defence and while Olivier Giroud’s shot was saved, Younes Belhanda got to the ball first to tuck away his eighth goal of the season.
Despite conceding an early goal, Sochaux continued to attack. The away side’s main tactic was to play balls behind the 36-year-old Jeunechamp to Abdoul Razzagui Camara. The 22-year-old left winger was much too quick for his opponent and almost set up a goal after seven minutes but Modibo Maiga’s shot was blocked.
But when Hely’s side tried to play short, quick passes through midfield Montpellier would pounce. The home side launched most of their attacks off the back of a loose Sochaux pass.
Sochaux hit back as speed increases
After such a frenetic opening quarter of an hour, a drop in pace would have been expected but if anything the game went up a notch. Neither side could slow the play down through midfield, which resulted in end-to-end action.
Montpellier almost went 2-0 up in the 20th minute. Giroud showed great control to head a chipped pass down to Estrada who switched the play to the left. Utaka dribbled straight at Sebastian Corchia and then cut inside before fizzing a shot just over the bar.
Montpellier had a penalty shout waved away by the referee and then Sochaux almost scored. But Maiga inexplicably headed a cross back the way it had come rather than towards goal. Despite the miss, that move was a warning of the big striker’s ability.
Unfortunately for Montpellier, they didn’t pay attention and just a minute later Maiga hit the back of the net. The attack again went down the left through A.R. Camara. The Guinea international passed wider to his captain David Sauget who curled an in-swinging cross to Maiga. The Malian controlled the ball on his chest and acrobatically volleyed over Jourdren.
It has been a frustrating season for Maiga. The 24 year old was on his way to Newcastle United before the English club stopped the transfer due to a problem with his knees and signed Papiss Cisse instead. Plus Maiga contracted malaria while playing at the Africa Cup of Nations. But since Hely took over he has turned a corner and this was his third goal in three games. If Sochaux are to avoid relegation, Maiga will be crucial.
Home side close to scoring second
Despite bringing the game back to 1-1, Sochaux’s defence continued to look shaky. Hely inherited the one of the worst defensive sides in Ligue 1. Les Lionceaux had conceded 46 goals before this game with Ajaccio and Dijon the only two clubs who have conceded more (49 goals each). Sochaux had managed only four clean sheets, the worst record in the competition.
But Montpellier manager Rene Girard remained frustrated for the rest of the half as his players failed to provide the moment of quality to take the lead. Girard’s main playmaker, Belhanda, got move involved but Sochaux hung on.
Belhanda passed to Utaka but his shot was blocked, then the Moroccan international set up S. Camara but the winger’s cross was too high for Giroud at the back post and skimmed off the top of the striker’s head. In the final minute of the half, Belhanda dribbled through the middle and was pulled to the ground on the edge of the penalty area. Estrada struck a curling shot around the wall with his left boot but Pierrick Cros dived to his right to parry the ball away.
The 20-year-old goalkeeper was making his seventh start of the campaign for Sochaux. Cros was not on the bench when regular ‘keeper Richert had to leave the field last week but was preferred to Girard’s other option Papa Demba Camara against Montpellier.
League leaders step up after halftime
Sochaux surprisingly replaced A.R. Camara at the break. The left winger had been one of his side’s best players in the first half but Hely took him off and brought on defensive midfielder Theirry Doubai. The visitors looked like they would try to hold on for the draw.
But by reducing their attacking intent, Sochaux invited Montpellier to attack and the league leaders obliged. In the 49th minute, Giroud should have scored but his shot was weak and Cros gathered the ball easily. That sparked a busy period for Les Lionceaux’s goalkeeper, as he first saved Estrada’s powerful shot at the near post, then stopped another vicious strike as Belhanda shot straight at him before blocking Utaka’s half-volley with his legs.
Cros couldn’t keep everything out, however, and in the 55th minute, Montpellier took the lead for the second time in the match. The ball was cleared to Utaka on the left side of the box and while Cros saved his shot, the ball fell straight to S. Camara who easily slotted his seventh goal of the season.
With Lille losing to Brest as this game was being played, the day was going very well for Montpellier. Apart from PSG, the reigning champions are the only side in with a serious chance of catching Montpellier and if the two results didn’t change, Montpellier would open up a seven-point gap on Lille.
Sochaux struggle, Montpellier continue to attack
Leading 2-1, the home side pushed on to bury Sochaux. Almost every one of Montpellier’s attacks went down the left through Utaka and in the 73rd minute the Nigerian showed his power again.
Utaka drove towards Corchia and then crossed to Giroud. Montpellier’s leading goal scorer looked likely to win the header but Sochaux central defender Carlao got over the top of Giroud to head the ball clear.
Utaka is best known in England for being one of Portsmouth’s expensive and relatively ineffective signings prior to Pompey’s first period of administration and relegation from the Premier League. However, Utaka’s time in England did see him lift the FA Cup as he set up Nwankwo Kanu’s goal in Portsmouth’s 1-0 win over Cardiff City in the 2008 Final. But despite a poor reputation in the EPL, the Nigerian was brilliant against Sochaux. The powerful attacker started his 27th match of the season on Saturday having scored five times and provided two assists.
In a disappointing defensive performance by Sochaux, 26-year-old Carlao was the only other positive down back alongside Cros. The Brazilian kept Giroud off the scoresheet with his strength in the air and numerous last-ditch tackles.
Giroud almost scored moments after Carlao denied him but after controlling Belhanda’s chipped pass, the striker’s powerful volley didn’t beat Cros. Montpellier was completely on top but without another goal, Sochaux still had a chance of stealing a draw.
Giroud denied again but Montpellier triumph
As Hely introduced his three substitutes in search of an equaliser, Les Lionceaux began to unravel structurally. There was no real link between defence and attack.
Montpellier on the other hand continued to probe and in the 79th minute Giroud went close once again. Stambouli, who had come on at right back for Jeunechamp, pushed forward and crossed into the box. Montpellier’s front man again found space between Sochaux’s two central defenders and stooped to loop his header over Cros but the young ‘keeper ensured that Giroud would not get his name on the scoresheet with a fine stretching save to tip the ball over the bar.
It was an unfortunate result for Giroud who deserved a goal after a committed performance. The 192-centimetre striker has been one of the stories of Ligue 1 this season. Having developed his football at lower league clubs like Grenoble, Istres and Tours, Giroud was considered a cheap gamble by Montpellier when he joined the club almost two years ago. After scoring 14 goals last season, the powerful striker has blossomed this season with 22 goals in all competitions, including 18 in the league.
Giroud is a hard-working target man who controls the ball very impressively with both chest and head. But the 25 year old combines that with fine skills when the ball is on the floor. The Frenchman scored on his full debut for France and is unlikely to be with Montpellier for much longer after this impressive season.
Sochaux had a late free kick to try and pinch a goal but Ryad Boudebouz’s loopy cross was too easy for Jourdren to catch and Montpellier won 2-1.
Montpellier in box seat, Sochaux struggling
Montpellier’s win sees them stay top of Ligue 1 on 63 points. However, PSG’s 2-1 victory over Marseille on Sunday means the capital club are still only behind on goal difference. Lille lost 3-1 to Brest on Saturday putting them seven points off the top. But the reigning champions do play the other two title contenders before the end of the season, meaning they are still in the hunt.
But Girard’s side are in the box seat with their game in hand, which they play on April 11 away to Marseille. A win will put Montpellier three points clear and well on the way to their first ever Ligue 1 title. The club’s previous highest result in the French top flight is third.
At the other end of the table, Sochaux are far from finished. Les Lionceaux remain second-bottom but are still within one victory of four clubs, with Nice and Dijon also far from safe in the 13th and 14th spot. Of the six clubs above them, Hely’s men play Dijon, Ajaccio and Caen in their last seven games. If Sochaux can win those games they will have a big chance of playing in Ligue 1 next season.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelHuguenin