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Are Mario Balotelli and Nice set to be this season's great underdog story?

The former Liverpool striker looks rejuvenated since moving to Ligue 1.

Mario Balotelli has impressed early on at Nice.
Mario Balotelli has impressed early on at Nice.

IN FRANCE LAST season, perhaps more than ever, Ligue 1 was a one-horse race.

Paris St-Germain finished on 96 points. The runners-up were Lyon on 65 points, with a gap of 31 points separating the top-two teams, and in the process emphasising the significant gulf in class between the French champions and the also-rans.

After a 9-0 win away to Troyes, PSG claimed a sixth domestic title in their history. During the entire season, they lost just two matches out of 38 — against Lyon, when they effectively had the league wrapped up, and at home to Monaco, after they had already been confirmed as champions. During this period, they also set a new French record, as they went nearly a year without losing.

It was the fourth consecutive season in which the Parisians had triumphed domestically. For the past two seasons, PSG have even claimed a domestic quadruple, winning the Coupe de France, the Coupe de la Ligue and the Trophée des Champions as well as Ligue 1. Clearly, the vast millions ploughed into the club was paying off, while making French football far less competitive overall as a result.

This season, however, the status quo appears to be under threat. PSG sit only third on 20 points — already matching their tally of games lost (two) in 2015-16.

Over the weekend, Unai Emery’s men suffered another setback, as they could only draw 0-0 at home to Marseille.

Yet perhaps even more surprising is the performance of Nice. Lucien Favre’s sit top of the table, four points ahead of nearest rivals Monaco with 10 games played.

A recent piece on WhoScored.com noted how, following Juventus’ dramatic loss at the weekend, they became the most successful club in Europe’s big five leagues, with eight wins and two draws out of their 10 matches so far.

And remember, this is not a club with anything like the power or resources of PSG. They have won Ligue 1 four times, but all of those successes were in the 1950s.

Just three seasons ago, they were battling relegation and narrowly avoided the drop. Last year, their fourth-place finish was regarded as a major overachievement.

But in the close season, they lost key players such as Hatem Ben Arfa (free transfer to PSG) and Nampalys Mendy (£13m to Leicester City). Manager Claudio Puel also departed to join Southampton.

Many people also doubted the wisdom of signing Liverpool outcast Mario Balotelli, a renowned troublemaker whose career appeared to be on the wane at 26.

Yet despite all these issues, they are currently thriving and look better than ever of late.

Though the good work was slightly undermined by a red card in the win over Lorient earlier this month, Balotelli otherwise appears to have slotted seamlessly into his new surroundings in a way he never did at Liverpool.

Indeed, with six goals in six appearances so far, not only is Balotelli a major reason why Nice sit top of Ligue 1 right now, be he has already bettered his decidedly underwhelming overall Liverpool tally of four goals and 28 appearances.

It remains to be seen whether Balotelli and Nice can continue to defy doubters, of course, but at the very least, French football is suddenly looking far more interesting all of a sudden.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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