This week we’re taking the DeLorean back to February 2012 and the early days of the Qatar era at PSG. Back before Neymar and Mbappe, before even Zlatan and Cavani. These are the days of Jeremy Menez and Momo Sissoko!
First things first, I must admit that I always quite liked PSG. They had a brilliant kit, they were always a great pick for a Football Manager game in Ligue 1 and to be honest they were always a bit of an underdog compared to the likes of Lyon and Marseille.
That all changed in the summer of 2011 when they were taken over by Qatar Sports Investments. The new regime immediately sanctioned a spending spree, bringing proven Ligue Un talent like Kevin Gameiro and Blaise Matuidi to the Parc des Princes, but also using General Manager Leonardo’s contacts in Serie A to seal deals for the likes of Salvatore Sirigu, Jeremy Menez and most excitingly, Javier Pastore, hot off a breakout season at Palermo, for whom they paid a French-record fee of £37m
So it seemed a good time to go and see some Ligue Un action.
Picking a Match
Narrowing it down required a bit of planning. We needed a weekend where PSG were at home (obviously) in February/March, which didn’t clash with a France home game in the Six Nations. The eventual choice of Montpellier came about for little reason other than they were a recognisable name from the world of French football.
Little did we know what the following months would bring…
When we arrived in Paris, PSG sitting top of Ligue Un was no surprise. I mean, that was part of the reason we were going there. The new owners had already shown their ruthless streak, firing popular manager Antoine Kombouare at the start of the winter break and replacing him with Carlo Ancelotti.
It was a decision which raised a few eyebrows (pun very much intended) given Kombouare’s status as a club legend and the fact PSG were top of the league. But the Qatari owners had their eyes on the big picture. Ancelotti, with two Champions Leagues and a scudetto at Milan and a domestic double at Chelsea, was a proven winner and more importantly he was a manager who could help attract the kind of A-List talent the new PSG would require. Despite that, the only significant arrivals in January were the Brazilian defenders Alex from Chelsea and Maxwell from Barcelona, and Italy international midfielder Thiago Motta from Inter.
But it was the over-performance of Montpellier which turned this match into a potential classic. Despite only finishing 14th the year before, they sat one point behind their more illustrious opponents going into the game. They were the league’s top scorers, inspired by 16 from their record signing Olivier Giroud, and were very much the neutrals favourites in France.
Other Parisienne Pursuits
It goes without saying that Paris is a superb city to visit for a few days. Over the course of the weekend we managed to fit in trips to the Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Moulin Rouge among other iconic monuments.
On the sporting side of things, we also visited the Stade de France, which was hosting a French Top 14 rugby match between Stade Français and Toulon, and Roland Garros, which was mostly closed with the museum given over to a jazz exhibition. You win some, you lose some!
The Main Event
So after all the build-up, we finally took our seats in the inventively-named Paris Stand, wisely choosing to avoid sitting behind either goal.
A strange feature of PSG games in these days was the intense rivalry between the groups of fans who gathered in the two ends of the Parc des Princes, the Kop of Boulogne and the Tribune d’Auteuil. Tensions between the Ultra groups from these two stands, often with a racial element, had been ongoing for years and reached a peak in 2010 with the death of one fan before a match. Although the groups were officially disbanded in the aftermath of that incident, tensions continued to simmer and during the game, a lot of the noise came from the two opposing ends chanting against each other.
That said, the reception for the teams as they walked out was phenomenal.
PSG struck first and what a goal it was to open proceedings. Alex received the ball from a short free kick and absolutely leathered it, the swerve on the ball totally caught out Montpellier goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourdren.
This was rather against the run of play, as Montpellier had taken the game to their opponents. They knew the pressure was off them and all on PSG so they threw the shackles off and attacked. And right at the end of the first half, they got their reward, a great cross in from the right picking out Younes Belhanda, whose header was just powerful enough to beat Sirigu, even though the Italian goalkeeper got a hand to it.
So into the second half and the pressure on PSG became even more evident. Montpellier were causing them lots of problems and they just couldn’t find their rhythm in the attacking third. Ancelotti tried to resolve this by bringing on Pastore, making a comeback after a month out injured, but within ten minutes of his introduction, the unthinkable happened – Montpellier went ahead.
It was almost a carbon copy of the first goal as a cross from the right flank, this time from Olivier Giroud, found John Utaka totally unmarked in the centre and he steered his header past Sirigu. Pandemonium among the small band of Montpellier fans in the corner opposite us and many sharp intakes of breath from the home fans.
Staring down the barrel of a humiliating and hugely damaging defeat, PSG dug deep and showed the kind of spirit you expect from a top team. Pastore was involved, setting Menez away with a great pass down the left and he crossed for substitute Guillaume Hoarau, who just about squeezed the ball over the line, despite a last-ditch attempt at a clearance from a defender.
So 2-2 it finished, a thrilling game and one which both sides could be pleased with the outcome. PSG had preserved their lead at the top and Montpellier had shown that they were a real force to be reckoned with and that their run so far was no fluke.
The Dramatic Conclusion
Although we had an idea that the outcome of this game would prove important come the end of the season, how it did turned out something of a surprise. At the end of May, three point separated PSG and Montpellier, with the underdogs taking the title with what at the time was the second highest point total in Ligue Un history.
Montpellier needed to come from behind to win at Auxerre, thanks to two goals from Utaka, but the game was stopped three times because of crowd disturbances from the home fans, showing their discontent at their relegation. PSG’s game finished on time – they could have still won the title if Montpellier had lost – and their players were left to wait and watch on TV as the underdogs clinched their remarkable success. The banner their fans had unfurled in Paris had proven prophetic – on this occasion, passion had trumped riches.
Had the game in February gone PSG’s way, they would have got the new era off to the perfect start with a league title, but few people outside the Parc des Princes were feeling sorry for them. Over the following summer, the Qatari owners showed how serious they were, bringing in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marco Verrati and the result was a dominant campaign where they won Ligue Un by twelve points from Marseille. The project was truly up and running.
Reflections from 2019
These days PSG are completely unrecognisable from the team I saw back in 2012. Winning the Ligue Un title (with the exception of the 2016/17 season, which saw a sensational triumph for Monaco) is now something of a fait accompli.
Yet for all the domestic silverware they’ve won since then, the European stage has been a major let-down. After running Barcelona close in the 2013 quarter finals under Ancelotti, Laurent Blanc reached the last eight on three further occasions without progressing which would eventually cost him his job.
But the following years have seen PSG fare much worse than before and crash out in embarrassing circumstances, first in 2017 when they blew a 4-0 first leg advantage against Barcelona and then last season when they lost 3-1 at home to an injury and suspension-ravaged Manchester United.
For Montpellier, 2012 is obviously the high point in their history and they’ve not come close to equalling it since. Most of the following seven years have been spent in mid-table as many of the stars who fired them to their success departed over the following years.
Of these, by far the most successful has been Olivier Giroud who went on to become a regular fixture in the Premier League with Arsenal and Chelsea, but most notably led the line for France as they won the 2018 World Cup, despite not scoring a goal or even having a shot on target. The hard-work and selfless team play he demonstrated back in 2012 was still very much in evidence in Russia in 2018.
The landscape of football has changed dramatically in the 21st century, but stories like Montpellier (and Leicester City in England in 2016) give hope to all those who yearn to see different names on the game’s biggest trophies.
Next time: We’re going all the way back to 2010 and to one of the iconic stadiums of world football – La Scala del Calcio itself, the San Siro!