Blanc faces his past and alternative presents with Montpellier

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Back in April 2007, the phone rang for Laurent Blanc. He had been out of football for nearly four years after calling time on a truly magnificent playing career.

On the end of the line was Michel Mézy, the tired-looking director of sport at Montpellier, the club with whom Blanc has started out as a player in 1983, making 251 appearances over eight years.

Montpellier had been relegated from the top flight in 2004 and were now in real danger of plummeting to French football’s third tier. They were 18th in Ligue 2 with just four games remaining.

Mézy was looking for a saviour and Blanc was the man he’d chosen to replace the beleaguered Jean-François Domergue. But there was one problem. Blanc, who had never coached at that point, simply didn’t want the job.

Montpellier's Blanc in 1991. Name his opponent...

“Blanc was offered the post, but he wasn’t interested. He wanted to wait and look around,” recalled Laurent Niccolin, Montpellier’s Fatty Arbuckle-like president.

A short while later, Blanc would accept his first ever coaching position at Bordeaux and the rest, they say, is history.

Niccolin would ultimately entrust his bench to the controversial Rolland Courbis, who had led Marseille to the UEFA Cup final in 1999 just three years after being seriously injured in a shooting at the seaside resort of Hyères.

Courbis would not only save Montpellier, but also guide them back to Ligue 1 last May for the first time in five years. “Blanc didn’t accept the mission and it made sense,” he said over the weekend. “He had never coached before. He couldn't start out in that position so close to the end of the season.

"It was a job that could only be done by a veteran. If I were in his place, I wouldn't have accepted the job either. Montpellier might have been saved with him too, but I find it normal that he didn’t want to risk being burnt.”

Courbis would leave Montpellier by mutual consent before the start of this season as his chequered past began to catch up with him. He was arrested while assuming his commentary position at the Stade Vélodrome on September 19 and sent to prison the following day for his role in financial irregularities regarding transfer deals at Marseille from 1997 to 1999.

He was released on parole last month. 

Time to go: Courbis in court

So with this backdrop in mind it’s no understatement to say that little was expected of Montpellier on their return to Ligue 1. Courbis’s replacement René Girard had spent much of his coaching career with the French Football Federation, most notably in charge of the Under-21s from 2004 to 2008.

Girard hadn’t managed a club since his short spell with Strasbourg 12 years ago. At his official unveiling, Girard was under no illusion of the task ahead of him, acknowledging that the team was “relatively young and inexperienced for Ligue 1.”

And yet on Sunday night, just nine months after Girard took the job, Montpellier travelled to Bordeaux for an unlikely top-of-the-table clash that brimmed with romance. Level on points with the French champions, who also happen to have two games in hand, Montpellier were predictably cast as David in the battle against Blanc’s Goliath.

A study in France Football on Friday showed just how big a gulf lay between the two teams. Bordeaux's budget is said to be a staggering £65m greater than Montpellier’s, while Bordeaux’s star playmaker Yoann Gourcuff earns nearly £65,000 a week more than Montpellier’s highest-paid player, Emir Spahic.

Spahic robs Gourcuff. Not like that

If financial might isn’t a sufficient indicator of strength, Bordeaux could also count on a vast advantage in terms of experience. Montpellier fans were told how the average Bordeaux player has 60 more top-flight games under his belt and that among their opponents were 11 regular international footballers. Montpellier shouldn’t even have a chance. 

But oddly enough, come Sunday night the pressure was undoubtedly on Bordeaux. The usually reserved Blanc lost his cool at a press conference on Friday. The League had just announced that the Girondins would have to play four matches over the next 11 days to make up for two fixtures that had been postponed due to bad weather and moved because of cup commitments.

Blanc called the decision “devoid of sporting fairness,” adding that “it goes against what the League has done so far, namely protecting clubs involved in the Champions League.”

There was also increased speculation about his future, no doubt coinciding with France’s disastrous 2-0 defeat to Spain at the Stade de France on Wednesday night. A poll conducted last month made Blanc the clear favourite to succeed Raymond Domenech with 13% more of the vote than Marseille boss Didier Deschamps.

And yet more fuel was added to the fire by a reporter from the newspaper Sud-Ouest who hinted that Blanc’s replacement at Bordeaux had already been found, shouting: D“Pass on my regards to Éric Gerets."

Meanwhile, Girard looked at ease. “I just hope that we’re up to such a big occasion, that what’s at stake doesn’t eclipse the match itself. But the fact that we’re going there with our top-flight survival ensured means that we’ll be relaxed. It’s an excellent challenge,” he said.

And why not, you might say? Montpellier had already realised their primary objective this season. They had everything to play for and nothing to lose. Girard’s side had already beaten Lyon at the Stade Gerland in December. His top scorer Victor Hugo Montano had found six of his nine goals away from home.

And Girard was also going back to the place where he’d made his name as a tough-tackling midfielder in the 1980s. He had fond memories of Bordeaux, having played there for eight years, winning three League titles and two French Cups alongside Patrick Battiston and Marius Trésor.

Style counsel: Girard and Blanc strut their stuff

So like a derby against their former selves, Blanc and Girard faced off in one of the most entertaining and bizarre encounters of the season. The continued absence of captain Alou Diarra prompted Blanc to change his system ever so slightly – out went the tried and tested 4-2-3-1 and in came an ambitious 4-1-3-2, which would allow the talented Gourcuff more freedom behind the strikers.

Conversely, Girard stuck with the 4-3-3 that has served Montpellier so well this season. Knocked out of both cup competitions early on in the campaign, he has been able to field practically the same XI every week and his team, by now, play from memory.

But even the best-laid plans go awry. Bordeaux’s recently capped centre-back Mickaël Ciani was sent off for bringing down Montano in the box just after half an hour. Tino Costa – the Argentinian midfielder who has been an absolute revelation this season – stepped up for Montpellier but Cédric Carasso saved.

NEWS Sun Mar 7 Penalty pain for Montpellier at Bordeaux

Four minutes before half time, the summer signing from Toulouse would face another spot-kick. Carasso saved again and somehow Bordeaux went in at the interval on level terms. Blanc’s side have given away seven penalties this season, but thanks to Carasso they have never conceded a goal from one at home. 

Ooh, I did it again: Carasso saves his second penalty of the night

Girard now had a problem. Montpellier have been most successful this year on the counter-attack. But they were now faced with a numerical advantage and more possession than usual. Showing their experience, Bordeaux managed the situation better and Marouane Chamakh put them ahead just before the hour mark, scoring only his second non-header this season.

Looking every bit like champions, Bordeaux were triumphing in adversity. They were on the verge of victory. But then Costa – who isn’t nicknamed the new Juninho for nothing – stood over a free-kick deep in stoppage time. He struck the ball low and marveled as the hitherto magnificent Carasso spilled it over the line.

Montpellier had equalised at the death. It was their ninth goal this season scored in the last five minutes – more than any other team in Ligue 1.

Montpellier celebrate yet another late late show

Like their manager, who famously once drew a line on the pitch with the sole of his boot and dared his opponent to cross it, Montpellier proved they never give up without a fight. The dream is still alive.

Montpellier might – they just might – become only the fourth newly-promoted side to win the title and the first since Monaco in 1978. A lot will depend on how Bordeaux, Lyon and Marseille deal with their congested fixture lists.

But for now, Montpellier are still joint top, higher than they have ever been at this stage of the season. 

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