Nice's Mario Balotelli and Wylan Cyprien.
a true underdog story

Inspired by Mario Balotelli, the team defying doubters at the top of the French league

Nice’s ascension is a result of successful gambles on players and astute coaching appointments.

THE LIGUE 1 table has an unfamiliar name at its summit going into the mid-season break and, until recently, it would have been practically impossible to envisage Nice being the club threatening the superiority of Paris Saint-Germain.

Les Aiglons — the Eaglets — finished down in 13th in the French top flight four years ago, playing in the tight confines of the Stade du Ray, but a club who have not won the league title since 1959 did not have to look far for inspiration at the end of the 2011-12 campaign.

That season will forever be one of the most memorable in the history of Ligue 1, as Rene Girard’s Montpellier stunningly held off Paris Saint-Germain — who had been taken over by the Qatar Investment Authority in July 2011 and embarked on a spending spree — in a mesmerising title race, lifting the trophy for the first time.

And Montpellier’s exploits emboldened Nice, who made the first in what has been a long line of astute decisions by appointing Claude Puel as coach four days after the end of that campaign, the former Lyon boss promptly leading them to a fourth-placed finish in a fitting final season at the Stade du Ray, an increasingly tired but intimidating stadium with two steep terraces situated at each end of the ground.

Nice and Puel were unable to maintain their place as surprise challengers to PSG, Lyon and Marseille following the move to the sparkling new Allianz Riviera — narrowly avoiding relegation in their first season there before finishing 11th in 2014-15.

But Nice kept the faith with Puel, and it is that commitment to continuity, combined with the willingness to take gambles on talented but disruptive cast-offs that has enabled Nice to threaten PSG’s monopoly.

The acquisition of the enigmatic Hatem Ben Arfa, a playmaker whose eccentricities saw him left out in the cold at Newcastle United, inspired Nice to a top-four finish last term as he scored 17 league goals.

Ben Arfa’s stint proved brief, the France international leaving for PSG, and Nice have also had to overcome the departure of Puel, who traded the Cote d’Azur for the south coast of England and Southampton.

But the intelligent appointment of Lucien Favre as Puel’s replacement — and the signing of another maverick forward player in Mario Balotelli — have taken Nice to a level where they now sit two points clear of Monaco and five ahead of a surprisingly fragile PSG side at the halfway point.

Favre twice led Borussia Monchengladbach to Champions League qualification, becoming known for implementing a dynamic and fast-paced attacking style of play, but Nice have excelled defensively under his stewardship — conceding only 13 goals in 19 games.

Nice — despite their comparatively limited resources — also have the attacking talent to compete with PSG, as their recent 2-2 draw at the Parc des Princes proved.

Balotelli has been reinvigorated as the focal point of the attack, finding the net eight times in the league, while former Lyon winger Alassane Plea has 10 league goals to his name.

Midfielder Jean Michael Seri — an unheralded signing from Pacos de Ferreira in 2015 — has proved an unexpected source of the service to the forward players, chipping in with eight assists.

Playmaker Younes Belhanda — on loan from Dynamo Kiev — is well-versed on how to beat PSG to the title having played a crucial role in Montpellier’s historic triumph, though he is set to miss four to six weeks with a fractured toe.

At the back the international pedigree of Dante is complemented by the top-flight experience of Paul Baysse and former PSG player Mathieu Bodmer.

Whether the blend of the likes of Balotelli and Dante with a collective of Ligue 1 veterans will be enough to keep PSG and Monaco at bay remains to be seen.

But, with a 10-point gap to Lyon in fourth, Champions League football can now be seen as a realistic aim, and with over 20,000 fans turning out on a regular basis, the cash injection provided by progression to Europe’s premier club competition could be enough to ensure they remain in the upper echelons of Ligue 1 for the long term.

Nice’s hierarchy now has a track record of sound appointments and of attracting players of credible European pedigree.

It may remain a stretch to predict anyone other than PSG winning the French title at this point but, if the powers that be at Nice continue that trend with the added bonus of Champions League revenue, then the men from the capital may at last finally have some consistent competition.

The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!

The late Johan Cruyff on how he learned to play football>

Moyes claims Man United’s ‘great traditions’ have gone as he prepares for Old Trafford return>

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.