Montpellier’s Stade de la Mosson was unusually packed for the visit of newly promoted local rivals Nîmes on Sunday afternoon but the Tribune Heidelberg, the stand that houses the Montpellier ultra-group Butte Paillade 91, was missing its most prominent totem. A banner that bears the group’s name and usually sits proudly above the lower tier had been stolen. However, with 10 minutes remaining of what had been a ferocious Montpellier display, the missing banner reappeared – but at the other end of the stadium.
Until this week, the Derby du Languedoc had been largely forgotten by anyone outside the region, an area normally more famed for rugby. Although the rivalry has been fierce in the past – something underlined by the 400 police on hand at the game – the two clubs had not met in Ligue 1 for 25 years or in any competition for nearly a decade.
Tensions between the two groups had been simmering. Nîmes fans were attacked by Montpellier supporters in May as they returned from a Ligue 2 trip to Lorient, supposedly a response to Nîmes fans breaking into La Mosson last November. Subsequently, most Nîmes fans were banned from travelling to the game, with the 605 fans sanctioned to attend given a police escort to La Mosson. Fears of violence outside the ground remained, however, after a group of Montpellier fans had chanted “kill them!” at a training session this week.
The two sides do not meet often, but past encounters have developed a degree of mythos. Their most famous meeting came in a Coupe de France semi-final in 1996, when notorious Montpellier president Louis Nicollin said he would return home on horseback if his team lost. Nîmes secured a famous 1-0 win and, while Nicollin did not ride through the streets of Nîmes, his comments inspired a famous French pop song by Ricoune.
Their meeting on Sunday provided less comedy. The first lengthy delay came after Ambroise Oyongo opened the scoring for Montpellier in the first half. While celebrating the goal, Butte Paillade members spilled on to the pitch as the fence that separated them from the pitch collapsed. Two fans were injured in scenes horribly reminiscent of an incident at Amiens last season, in which 30 Lille fans were hurt. The second delay – again lasting more than 10 minutes – came towards the end of the second half. With Montpellier winning 3-0 and the game petering out, Nîmes supporters group the Gladiators unveiled a section of the stolen banner, provoking the home fans to vault hoardings behind the goal in anger. Riot police had to use pepper spray to block their advance.
Although stealing a banner may seem fairly innocuous at first, the theft – and the reaction it caused – shows there is an increasingly spiteful side to the French game. Disturbances caused by ultra groups are becoming common. While incidents akin to Bastia fans attacking Lyon players as they warmed up before a game in Corsica two years ago are rare, Marseille and St Étienne have been punished with stand closures in recent months for crowd disturbances and PSG were also sanctioned after their ultras tore up their end of Lyon’s Parc OL. As recently as Saturday, Angers supporters attacked a coach load of Guingamp fans. The LFP are in danger of allowing such incidents to become endemic.
The match was expected to be a clash of style on the pitch as well as in the stands. Like most Michel Der Zakarian sides, Montpellier are one of Ligue 1’s more conservative and pragmatic outfits. Their defensive tactics often prove useful against the top teams but leave them lacking ideas against weaker teams. Nîmes, meanwhile, have been the league’s most gung-ho outfit this season – only games involving PSG and Marseille have produced more goals – but bottom side Guingamp are the only team to have conceded more goals.
Nîmes had outplayed Marseille, fought back from 2-0 down against PSG and somehow overturned a one-man and two-goal deficit to win 4-3 at Angers, but Montpellier led the way in Languedoc. They eventually won 3-0 after the stadium announcer and several senior Montpellier players had pleaded with fans to stop their aggression for fear of punishment. They are now in the Champions League places. Nîmes, now without a win in six matches, were surprisingly restrained for much of the encounter by an uncharacteristically aggressive Montpellier, whose midfielder Florent Mollet dictated for long stretches.
Montpellier were fortunate the visitors squandered a couple of clear chances, but their display marked an evolution from last season’s over-reliance on the counterattack, which saw promising European hopes fade in April. Der Zakarian’s marauding wings-backs and counter-attacks remain, but the team’s pair of physical strikers, Laborde and Andy Delort, are now supported by a genuine No10 in Mollet, giving Montpellier some much-needed cutting edge.
Although Montpellier president Laurent Nicollin insisted no players were in danger, the LFP disciplinary committee meets today to discuss sanctions and they are likely to reprimand the club with at least a heavy fine. Either way, Der Zakarian’s team proved they have the firepower to produce their best campaign since winning Ligue 1 in 2012, with or without Butte Paillade’s trusty banner.
Ligue 1 talking points
• Montpellier’s form rightfully deserves top billing this week, but St Étienne also warrant mention. They are as defensively sound as they had been under Christophe Galtier, but the summer additions of Wahbi Khazri and Yannis Salibur, along with Rémy Cabella’s loan being made permanent, have rejuvenated an attack that had grownstodgy. With no European football to distract, is it so far-fetched to think Les Verts could keep pace with Marseille and Lyon until the end of the season?
• Credit to Nantes for a fine performance against a listless Lyon on Saturday. Although it may have come too late to save Miguel Cardoso’s job, Les Canaris played as well as they have since a season-opening loss to Monaco in drawing 1-all the Parc OL. Ciprian Tatarusanu pulled off several fine saves, but the hosts’ Anthony Lopes had to be equally sharp. On another day, Nantes could have picked up three points, giving presumptive new boss Vahid Halilhodzic a real chance of turning this season around.
• Finally, it seemed readers of this blog sensed an anti-Bielsa agenda, rather than a genuine wish to praise Lille in our first column of the season. There was nothing of that, but rather a wish to laud Christophe Galtier’s bright young attacking side. They had a minor wobble after the departures of Yassine Benzia and Lebo Mothiba, but their 3-0 demolition of Marseille leaves Lille a point clear in second, and they, like St Étienne, have no European football to stretch a thin squad. There is still much football to be played, but even with a slight over-reliance on Nicolas Pépé, Lille remain a side to watch.