While the majority of France’s top clubs with pretensions of finishing the Ligue 1 season second behind Paris Saint-Germain have struggled to piece together a coherent summer plan, Montpellier have emerged strongly as potential dark horses to finish in the top three.
Lyon, Saint-Etienne and Marseille have all changed management over the summer and have lost players key to their teams, while Lille are in a state of flux after losing Nicolas Pepe (£2.71) and Rafael Leao (£1.32) to Arsenal and AC Milan respective, while they will have their young squad tested by European commitments. Monaco, meanwhile, face rebuilding from near scratch after a wretched campaign.
Montpellier, who quietly finished an impressive sixth last season, have had little such trouble and, if anything, have only acted to strengthen their squad over the course of the summer.
Michel Der Zakarian’s team may not be the most explosive in the league, but they pack tremendous value to their punch. Only the top three lost fewer games than them last season, while only PSG, Lille and Saint-Etienne conceded fewer goals.
Admittedly they have lost goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte – arguably the most consistent No.1 in France’s top flight over the last three years – as well as flying right-wing back Ruben Aguilar (£0.40) to Monaco and Ellyes Skhiri to Cologne, but for the most part they have succeeded in keeping their squad together.
Crucially, they have retained the services of Andy Delort (£0.66), who has arrived on a permanent deal from Toulouse, having dovetailed quite brilliantly with Gaetan Laborde (£0.59) in what was Ligue 1’s most unlikely offensive hit last term.
But instead of simply standing still going forward, they have improved. Allied to under-rated No.10 Florent Mollet (£0.53), they have added Teji Savanier (£1.35), the breakout star of the division last term at the age of 26 with Nimes. No-one made more assists than the midfielder, whose career has now gone full circle by returning to his hometown club, which he left initially in 2011.
“This is where I feel most at home on earth,” he told L’Equipe in April. “I was born here and I’ll die here. We play petanque in the afternoon and the loser goes to the butcher shop to buy the meat for the barbeque. Then at night, we play the guitar outside. I don’t think there are many professional footballers who are lucky to live this life.”
If Savanier is happy to be home, the residents of the Gely area of the city where he grew up are only too happy to have him back, having already painted a giant mural of him in his new colours.
They will have to wait, though, to see him in action for real. A twisted knee in pre-season means that Montpellier will be deprived of his services for at least a couple of months, but until he makes his expected return in October.
These first two months of the campaign promise to be complicated for Montpellier, who will have to negotiate them without Mollet, who has a torn left thigh.
Der Zakarian has built a side that is dynamic enough to cope without two such players, though the additional loss of Aguilar earlier this week will be a blow tough to recover from given how effective he was offensively last term. Arnaud Souquet (£0.35), who is his replacement, is not a player of the same calibre.
Nevertheless, such is the understanding that Delort and Laborde have, even in this worst-case scenario, they should still be effective. The strike pair combined for 25 goals and 10 assists last season and have the strength and spirit to feed off scraps.
Defensively, meanwhile, Montpellier are unlikely to change what has been a successful formula, underpinned by Vitorino Hilton, a player who will turn 42 in September but who has lost none of his abilities to read the game. All they are seeking is a first-choice goalkeeper, with Roma’s Sweden international Robin Olsen (£0.27) a likely candidate.
While their rivals have been making high-profile changes to their staff and to their squad, they have been working away quietly and effectively – just as Der Zakarian would have them on the field.
Injury threatens to spoil the start of the season for Montpellier, but if they can overcome these hurdles early on, they have the capacity to build enough momentum to secure a European finish – and perhaps even an unlikely spot on the podium.