When Montpellier’s gruff, outspoken president Louis Nicollin was questioned last year about the possibility of his team winning Ligue 1, months before what seemed impossible became a magical, improbable reality, he scoffed. “There’s no chance we’ll be champions!” Nicollin sniffed. “If I were PSG, Lille, or Lyon and beaten by Montpellier, I’d stab myself in the arse with a sausage!”
That Montpellier have since returned to a lower mid-table position that is more or less their historical norm says as much to support Loulou’s original comments as it does about the club’s once-in-a-lifetime achievements last season.
Montpellier charmed a nation and climbed to heights never before seen at La Paillade, but they are old news now. The glue that united the squad into a force stronger than the sum of its parts has since melted as MHSC stumble from scandal to scandal, while their star player from that historic campaign just helped knock Montpellier out of the Champions League with his new club in north London’s red half.
Paris Saint-Germain, it was thought, would replace Montpellier and march on to assume the position as rulers of French football, thanks largely to the significant financial backing of Qatari owners and the acquisition of a giant, brilliant Swede.
But instead, are we about to witness the emergence of another unlikely lad, ready to not only watch the throne but pounce on it like the prowling panther that is their emblem?
With a narrow 1-0 win over Valenciennes, Saint-Etienne went top of Ligue 1 this past weekend, albeit for only 20 hours. They are playing the most exciting football in France, created by some of the best young players in France, under one of France’s most talented young managers.
Historically France’s most decorated team with ten league titles to their name, Saint-Etienne are currently in superb form. Under Christophe Galtier les Verts are now unbeaten in twelve games in all competitions. Not only did they beat the mighty PSG in their own backyard this month, they also knocked them out of the Coupe de la Ligue (league cup) in the quarter finals on penalties.
Playing with a verve and panache that has lit up Ligue 1, Saint-Etienne have the best defensive record in the league, are the third highest goalscorers and – in a league that is once again showing its competitive side with the top eight teams separated by just six points – are fourth, only one point behind Carlo Ancelotti’s posse of pampered Parisians and three behind leaders Lyon. Put simply, Saint-Etienne mean business.
For so long a sleeping giant it has been a turbulent two decades for Saint-Etienne; spanning relegations and promotions through to the dark Damien Comolli days and the brief, unsuccessful Alain Perrin era. Their loyal supporters however - some of the country’s most fervent and dedicated fans – remember the glory days of the 1960s and 70s and long for a return to French football’s top table.
When Perrin left Saint-Etienne in 2009 to be replaced by his assistant Galtier (they also worked together during Perrin’s time at Portsmouth) few would have believed the 43-year-old, in his first full-time role, could transform Sainté as he has in three years.
Ask Christophe Galtier if his team can be this season’s Montpellier however and you will not receive so crude an answer as Nicollin’s. Not from Galtier. Galtier is suave, Galtier is slick. The gallic good looks, the sultry stare – that jacket. Galtier, I dare say, is the talk of Ligue 1 manager’s wives everywhere.
Survival in 2010, finishing 17th, was followed by 10th and 7th place finishes in the last two years. After twice knocking PSG off their perch Saint-Etienne now have the look of potential title contenders.
On very little money, Galtier has completely rebuilt the team inside two seasons. Jeremy Clement, Jean-Pascal Mignot, Fabien Lemoine, Jonathan Brison, Max-Alain Gradel and the beast of a keeper that is Stephane Ruffier all came in last season, to be joined by Renaut Cohade, Francois Clerc, Romain Hamouma and former Marseille man Brandao this. All bar livewire wingers Gradel and Hamouma are experienced campaigners who know Ligue 1 inside out and have added steel and depth.
Add to these extremely smart signings the integration of academy graduates like Kurt Zouma – courted already by several leading English clubs – Joshua Guilavogui, Faouzi Ghoulam and of course captain Loic Perrin, and you have the framework of an excellent side.
The cherry on the icing of the cake though is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The charismatic Gabon international adds pizzazz to the team, the catalyst that drives Sainté on with his boundless energy, boyish charm and infectious enthusiasm.
Aubameyang is no shrinking violet. He appears on TV dressed like Michael Jackson, shaves the Superman symbol into his Neymar-esque hairstyle, celebrates goals with a Spiderman mask and recently had his Aston Martin painted apple-green as a declaration of love for the green of Saint-Etienne. But his charisma has without question helped create a dressing room camaraderie and joy that is so often the hallmark of successful teams.
“He definitely has a bling-bling side” Guilavogui commented in a recent interview. “I encourage it, because every attacker has to cultivate his own image. But in person he is extremely generous – he really has his hand on heart. That is the beauty of him.”
Aubameyang – or SpiderBam – as he calls himself these days, can play a bit too. Voted Ligue 1 Player of the Month in October, his 8 goals and 4 assists in 14 games this season, to go with a 16-goal tally last year, mark him out as one of the division’s best forwards and a player who many tip for great things.
If Aubameyang gives the team star quality and glamour on the pitch however, off it Galtier is the spiritual leader. An intelligent man-manager, the coach is an iron rod of support for his players and always seems to say the right thing in his press conferences.
When Aubameyang scored the winner at PSG, his first tweet post-match was to thank Galtier – ‘a coach who knows how to handle things and who understands me better than anyone.’ The warmth and respect is clear.
Tactically astute and always evolving, Galtier is unquestionably one of France’s most gifted young coaches. And that jacket, honestly. Magnificent.
Last season Les Verts’ inability to handle big games cost them repeatedly, which is why the league and cup double over PSG this month are such big results psychologically.
French football may well have found its next underdog challenger to PSG’s designs on supremacy. And this time not a sausage in sight.
Jonathan Fadugba is the creator and editor-in-chief of Just Football and a French football analyst for Football Radar. Follow him on Twitter JustFootball or JFfutebol.