Back in Europe for the first time in 11 seasons, Montpellier Hérault SC travel to Győri ETO FC on Thursday with coach René Girard urging his players to "make the most of the experience".
Since reaching the second round of the 1999/2000 UEFA Cup, Montpellier have endured a tough time, being relegated four campaigns later before finally bouncing back to the top flight in 2009. However, Les Pailladins were Ligue 1's surprise package last season, securing the fifth-place finish which makes them the first French side to enter the European arena this term.
Montpellier's best performance on the continent came in the 1990/91 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup when they overcame clubs such as PSV Eindhoven and FC Steaua Bucureşti en route to the quarter-finals. Under the ownership of Louis Nicollin since 1978, the Languedoc-Roussillon outfit's return to UEFA competition will be an emotional experience for the colourful president. "I have fond memories of our time in Europe and I would not swap my place with anyone," he said.
While sharing Nicollin's evident excitement, Montpellier coach Girard sounded a note of caution ahead of his team's big adventure. "Our aim this season is a top-ten place in Ligue 1 – last year was exceptional," the 56-year-old said. "To go far in the Europa League I think you need a stronger squad than we have, but we would be stupid not to make the most of the experience for the players."
Montpellier make the trip to Hungary without two key players from last season – both having moved onto pastures new. Top scorer Víctor Montaño has joined Stade Rennais FC while creator-in-chief Alberto Costa, who headed the assists' chart last term, left for Valencia CF. Girard will hope that reinvesting the fees received for the duo in Ligue 2's lead marksman of 2009/10, Olivier Giroux, plus Chile midfielder Marco Estrada and former Turkey striker Hasan Kabze will take the side to the next level.
First, they must negotiate a way past Győr, a task Bosnia and Herzegovina defender Emir Spahić is not taking lightly. "Győr will be a very tough game," he said. "They are filled with very good Croatian and Serbian players. I know at least five of them. We'll have to be prepared." Montpellier will also hope that competitive action will spur them on after failing to score in three friendlies including a 1-0 loss to third-tier Ajaccio GFCO.
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