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Regular followers of French football will be rubbing their eyes in disbelief as the domestic season heads for its traditional winter break.

At the conclusion of Gameday 17 it was no particular surprise to see Champions Bordeaux sitting at the top of the pile.

But what was utterly unbelievable was to see unfashionable Montpellier sitting pretty in second place in the 20-team Ligue 1. The south coast outfit only rejoined the French elite at the end of last season when they were promoted from the second tier as runners-up to Lens.

Nobody gave them a second thought as potential contenders at the top end of the table. And yet here they are having amassed 30 points, just four points behind Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux – and with a game in hand. Coach René Girard – a longstanding coach at various levels with the French Football Federation – took over at the club after Montpellier had secured promotion under Roland Courbis at the end of May.

Courbis is a legend of the French game, but had announced his intention to step down at the end of last season no matter what, saying he needed a holiday from the game. He left behind a team that had some quality, but which everyone agreed would need plenty of luck and no little application in order to stay in the top flight after a five-year absence.

Girard kept the nucleus of the promoted side, then added a couple of gnarly old Ligue 1 veterans in left sided attacker Geoffrey Dernis from Saint-Etienne and former Nice defender Cyril Jeunechamp to give them some beef. It’s not a formula that anyone could have believed would have reaped such major rewards.

And yet Montpellier have since proved themselves a tidy little unit as they’ve gone about climbing the table. Built on a solid defence that’s conceded just 17 goals, this hasn’t stopped Montpellier from producing some enjoyable football based around a philosophy of putting pressure on the opposition by working the ball as far up the field as possible. Colombian striker Victor Montano has led the attacking line with aplomb, while France Under 21 striker Karim Ait-Fana has also caught the eye as Montpellier have defied all expectations so far.

It would be unrealistic to expect Montpellier to maintain such a lofty position right through to the end of the campaign, of course. But then again, it was equally unrealistic to expect Montpellier to be in second place at this stage of the season with nine wins under their belts, so don’t count anything out!

As crazy as Montpellier’s rise has been, so has the fall of Lyon. After Bordeaux put an end to a seven-year league title winning streak at the end of last season, things have gone from bad to worse for Claude Puel’s men. A 1-0 home defeat in a turgid game against Bordeaux in mid-December saw Lyon slump to an astonishing ninth place in the table. Crisis time? Possibly, especially when former player and right hand man to President Jean-Michel Aulas Bernard Lacombe publicly slaughtered the club’s players.

“Our team is utterly average,” exploded Lacombe. “And we could do with players who actually talk about the game rather than the last car they bought.” Ouch! Clearly Lacombe believes there’s too much cash swilling around and not enough passion for the game at his club just now.

Money, though, has been one of the key topics of conversation amongst football people in France of late, especially when reviled national coach Raymond Domenech was revealed to have banked 826,222 euros for his not-very-impressive work in getting France to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

“Not that much when compared to a Fabio Capello,” screamed the Federation. “Quite a lot when all Domenech has won is a Division Two title in France and an Under-21 competition in Toulon,” came the tart response.

Had Domenech produced a decent team and not been such a misery guts with the press perhaps the response to his salary would have been different. Plus the collective guilt felt about Thierry Henry’s flagrant handball that robbed The Republic Of Ireland of their chance of World Cup qualification didn’t help Domenech’s cause either.

But at least it looks like somebody up there likes him. After all, how else can you explain why France were subsequently drawn against Uruguay, Mexico and South Africa in Group A, one of the easiest of the eight World Cup pools?

“So it turns out that the French Federation were right to keep Domenech after all,” said former international Christophe Dugarry following the draw, his tongue firmly in his cheek. “They’ll never find another coach as lucky as this one!”

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