By Tom Davidson
As I write this article, Nice sit in second place in Ligue 1. Although level on points with the leaders, Monaco, and with a three point advantage over Paris-Saint-Germain, manager Lucien Favre will feel that the weekend’s 0-0 draw with Metz was a crucial two points dropped as the club gives up the throne where it had made itself so comfortable this season.
Flashback to when Nice last won the league. It’s 1959. The previous year, a 17-year-old Pelé won the World Cup with Brazil, PSG didn’t even exist, and it’s 39 years prior to the birth of Mario Balotelli. Since then, the club suffered relegation twice before establishing itself as a consistently average, mid-table, Stoke City equivalent. With PSG crowned champions four years on the trot, Ligue 1 has become somewhat stale in recent years. However, in 2017, could Nice lead the revolution needed to revitalise French football?
Narrowly missing out on a podium finish last season, Nice’s rise has been more gradual than Leicester City’s momentous 5000-1 feat. Yet, after losing the skilful Hatem Ben Arfa to PSG and their manager, Claude Puel, to Southampton, the future seemed bleak for the club down on the French Riviera.
The arrival of new manager Favre brought a new lease of life to the team as the tactics were adapted to a more defensively sound set-up. The signing of Dante, the veteran Brazilian centre-half, has gifted the side with the experience and the commanding presence needed at the core of any successful starting XI. Reminiscent of the mammoth influence of the unlikely duo of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan in Leicester’s title-winning side, Dante’s no-nonsense defending has proven decisive in the numerous clean sheets Nice have kept in the first half of the season.
Bolstering the defence, however, did not mean compromising on attacking options for Favre’s side. Mario Balotelli joined Nice on a free transfer on deadline day in the summer. On his debut, the charismatic Italian netted twice to ensure his team’s victory over Marseille. Balotelli then struck another brace past Monaco, bringing his tally up to four goals in only two appearances wearing a Nice shirt. The sword-fighting, dart-throwing, karate-kicking, firework enthusiast really seems to have changed his ways down on the South coast.
The rest of the team, devoid of household names, flaunts a plethora of home-grown talent and promising youngsters who add energy and excitement to counter-attacking football.
With Nice’s squad estimated to be worth only a fraction of the price of that of PSG and Monaco, the club are proving that you don’t need an extortionate budget to battle with the big guns. A solid backline, energetic play and Super Mario’s flair have made up the secret formula for Nice this season.
It’s been almost 60 years since Nice were champions of France. Can they defy the odds and triumph like the Foxes last year? Who knows? As a neutral, it’s just ‘Nice’ to see competitiveness return to an otherwise uncontested Ligue 1.
Photograph: Nazionale Calcio (Flickr)