FOR THOSE of us accustomed to seeing Paris St. Germain galloping away with Ligue 1, the start to 2016-17 has been interesting. PSG, shorn of the charismatic Zlatan, have struggled to find their feet under Unai Emery and the current leaders are Nice.
Although the team from the Cote D’Azur may be unfamiliar league leaders, there’s a very recognisable striker who is helping Le Aiglons (The Eaglets) make the early running in France. Mario Balotelli, who has signed on a one-year contract from Liverpool, netted five goals for Nice as the club remained unbeaten in their first eight games.
|14.8||Rennes (EUR 50m)||H||W1-0||19,075||Sarr|
|20.8||Angers (EUR 25m)||A||W1-0||10,142||Plea|
|27.8||Lille (EUR 70m)||H||D1-1||16,355||Koziello|
|11.9||Marseille (EUR 100n||H||W3-2||31,194||Balotelli 2, Cyprien|
|18.9||Montpellier (EUR 42m)||A||D1-1||12,272||Belhanda|
|21.9||Monaco (EUR 145m)||H||W4-0||21,867||Baysse, Balotelli 2, Plea|
|25.9||Nancy (EUR 30m)||A||W1-0||17,580||Plea|
|2.10||Lorient (EUR 36m)||H||W2-1||17,816||Pereira, Balotelli|
Balotelli, however, also showed he’d lost none of his wayward character as he was sent off in Nice’s 2-1 win over Lorient after two yellows in the space of a few minutes. Not everything has changed, although Balotelli’s fitness, eagerness and focus have all been noted in France. Perhaps he may yet salvage a career that was in danger of drifting into unfulfillment.
Balotelli’s rebirth could also be down to Nice’s new manager, Lucien Favre, who joined the club in May 2016. A Swiss who was previously coach with Borussia Moenchengladbach, has publicly praised the former Milan, Liverpool and Manchester City player: “He is a player of incredible quality, but he still needs to develop, especially with his weak foot, but he can be really incisive with his right, as well as his head.”
Favre, who favours a quick, high-tempo approach, has built on Nice’s success in 2015-16. Nice finished fourth (36 points behind champions PSG) and qualified for the Europa League, although their performances in the group stage have been less than impressive this season.
Favre has added to the squad, however, signing Brazilian Dalbert Henrique from Portugal’s Guimaraes, experienced defender Dante from the Bundesliga’s Wolfsburg and a trio of young French midfielders in Arnaud Lusamba (Nancy), Arnaud Souguet (Dijon) and Wylan Cyprien (Lens). Balotelli arrived at the end of August along with Moroccan midfielder Younes Belhanda, who is on loan from Dynamo Kyiv.
Nice’s early season flourish can be attributed to a strong defensive record. They’ve conceded just five goals in eight games, the best record in Ligue 1. While Dalbert and Dante have helped to shore up the Nice backline, the player getting the headlines is 17 year-old Malang Sarr.
Favre gave Sarr his debut on the opening day of the season against Rennes on August 14 and he headed the winner in the 60th minute. His performances since have not gone unnoticed across Europe and, unsurprisingly, Arsene Wenger has been watching the youngster. Inter Milan and Chelsea have also placed him on their shopping lists, apparently.
It remains to be seen if Nice can maintain their momentum, but you sense it is only a matter of time before PSG click into gear. It’s been a long time since Nice lifted any silverware – they last won Ligue 1 in 1959 and in total they’ve been French champions four times. They are notable for being the club that Just Fontaine played for between 1953 and 1956. Fontaine was a member of the Nice team that won the title in 1955-56 and also topped the World Cup scorers’ list for 1958, netting a record 13 goals. Nice’s last prize was in 1997 when they won the Coupe de France by beating Guingamp on penalties in Paris.
In recent years, of course, the wallet of PSG has presided over the French game. Nice’s budget, according to France Football, came in at EUR 42m for 2016-17 – PSG’s is reputedly EUR 540m. So, it would be little short of a miracle if Nice were able to make a sustainable challenge. But as Leicester City demonstrated, tales of the unexpected can happen.