20 February ~ This week the Premier League revealed a play-offs proposal aimed at injecting greater excitement into the race for fourth place. The league table across the channel shows that one French club is doing a perfectly good job of enlivening the annual battle for a Champions League berth without the need for artificial intervention. Montpellier, who returned to the top flight this season after a five-year absence, lie second in the league, just three points off the top.
This raises the possibility of a newly-promoted side winning the French title for the first time since Monaco in 1978. Far from fading the longer the season goes on, Montpellier appear to be getting stronger. They go into this weekend's fixture at St Etienne on the back of five straight league wins, the first such run of results they've ever managed.
What makes Montpellier's achievement all the more remarkable is that they didn't spend a single euro on transfer fees last summer. Instead they recruited four players on free transfers, and three of them have gone on to make vital contributions. Bosnia international centre-half Emir Spahic, picked up from Lokomotiv Moscow, has proved arguably the most astute signing by any French club over the past 12 months. Midfielder Romain Pitau, discarded by Ligue 1 rivals Sochaux at the age of 31, has started every single game. And left-back Cyril Jeunechamp – best known for collecting 13 red cards and 95 yellow cards during a 13-year top-flight career – is playing as well as ever.
The rest of the side is a collection of promising young players (the brightest, France U-21 winger Karim Ait Fana, looks certain to be shortlisted for France's Young Player of the Year award) and unusually imported stars. Colombian striker Victor Montano, who's scored nine goals, played for Montpellier in the second division for four years after arriving from Istres, a smaller club in the neighbouring region of Provence, but his journey looks mundane compared to that of team-mate Tino Costa.
Costa left his home city of Buenos Aires at the age of 17 to join an amateur side on the island of Guadeloupe, moving to the French mainland two years later. He played in France's third division for three different clubs (Racing Club Paris, Sete and Pau) before finally getting a break at Montpellier last season. After helping the club win promotion, the 25-year-old playmaker has set up so many chances with his skilful left foot this season that some fans think Diego Maradona should call him up for the World Cup finals.
A victory at St Etienne on Saturday night would put Montpellier level on points with champions Bordeaux (whose game is postponed) at the top of the table. Should that happen, it will be almost impossible for Montpellier's heavyweight president Louis Nicollin to keep telling us his club are playing for a top-10 position. James Eastham