Stability the key to Montpellier's success

Montpellier, a family-run club still in Ligue 2 three years ago, claimed their maiden French title on Sunday at the end of a remarkable season that rewarded stability over spending.

Owned by Louis Nicollin, a 68-year-old businessman at the helm of a refuse company, Montpellier had the league's 14th largest budget but played the best football thanks to a considered team-building policy.

"It all started with the Strasbourg game that earned us promotion back to Ligue 1 three years ago. It created a dynamic," sporting director Bruno Carotti, who played for Montpellier from 1991-95 and 2001-09, told Reuters.

In their first season back in the top flight, the club from the handball-mad city finished fifth and qualified for the Europa League before reaching the League Cup final last year.

"Stability was key. The squad never stopped improving, with youngsters from the youth academy," Carotti explained. "They know each other very well, they improved together as a group."

Montpellier built their success around the home-grown Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, one of the league's top centre-backs, and Morocco midfielder Younes Belhanda, who is on course to win the player of the year award.

Belhanda missed the last three games after being sent off for his involvement in a brawl but his replacement Remy Cabella rose to the challenge.

"[Coach] Rene [Girard] asked me for two players in January to make up for those who were going to the Africa Cup of Nations," Nicollin, whose son Laurent is the club's deputy president, was quoted as saying in French media this week.

"I told him: 'Look, you have [Benjamin] Stambouli and Cabella'. You cannot say I was wrong."

Stambouli and Cabella were groomed at Montpellier.

"We do not have the same weapons as others. We don't have the same financial means so we try to compensate," said Carotti.

"Before the start of the season we knew some players would leave to [go to] the Africa Cup of Nations so we built the squad accordingly."

With Belhanda away at the African tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Cabella was propelled to centre stage, gaining experience that eventually helped the team when the Moroccan missed the final few games because of his suspension.

"His [Cabella's] short experience was very important at the end of the season," said Carotti.

Montpellier also benefited from Olivier Giroud's outstanding season.

Giroud, who is set to take part in the European Championships for France next month, ended as the league's joint top scorer with 21 goals.

He joined the club last season for two million euros, a far cry from the 42 million euros Paris Saint-Germain paid for Argentine Javier Pastore from Palermo last summer.

Carotti, though, believes his team will struggle to retain their title next season.

"We will do everything we can, but clubs like PSG, Lyon or Olympique Marseille will certainly bounce back," he said.