Belhanda: Montpellier have gone soft
Montpellier playmaker Younes Belhanda has admitted he and his Ligue 1-winning team-mates have struggled this season because they have "gone soft" after their title triumph.
The French champions' freshly-acquired crown was badly tarnished as they flirted with the relegation zone after registering just two wins in the first nine league matches of their title defence.
Though a spell of improved form, reinforced notably by seven successive home wins, has eased Rene Girard's men into contention to finish fourth and pick up a Europa League place, Belhanda, 22, says the shockwaves of their title win are still being felt.
"At the start of the season, we still hadn't gotten over our title," he said. "There were some departures and arrivals, but that upheaval doesn't explain everything, notably our attitude, which wasn't the same as last year when, even if we weren't playing well, we were able to shut up shop and win 1-0. Just as in our recent games against Saint-Etienne and Rennes, you'd say that we've let ourselves go. We've gone soft after becoming champions."
One of the principal architects of the club's maiden Ligue 1 win, Belhanda's own season has mirrored that of the team. Though his return of goals compares favourably - he is currently on seven league strikes having struck 12 last term - his all-round displays have been less impressive.
The Morocco international said he felt the departure of last season's top scorer, Olivier Giroud, for Arsenal last summer placed too much of an onus on him to inspire the team.
"As Olivier left, and no strikers were coming in, I said to myself I had to do something for the team. Looking back, I can see that wasn't the solution. I have to rely on the team, and work with my team-mates. At times, I want to make the difference. I complicate my life, but I haven't lost my game," he said, before adding he had made a conscious decision to reject overtures from Fenerbahce in January and remain on the Mediterranean coast.
"It's tricky to leave in the middle of a season, especially as the first part had only been mediocre," he said. "Firstly, I want to play well in the second half of the season. Then I'll talk to the president to see what happens in June. But I don't want to stop playing at Montpellier. Personally, I hope to achieve the same stats as last season: 12 goals and five or six assists, that wouldn't be bad for a mediocre season."