Nice have certainly raised a few eyebrows by standing tall at the top of the Ligue 1 table during the international break, with Lucien Favre making instant impact at the Allianz Riviera. Six wins and two draws from their opening eight games has left them as the only team in the French top flight to not lose a game this season, but although consecutive defeats in the Europa League has left Nice with an uphill battle to remain in the competition, they have been a joy to watch.
Questions over whether Les Aiglons would struggle to replicate the wonderful campaign that saw them finish fourth last season after losing Hatem Ben Arfa, Namplays Mendy and Valere Germain who played integral roles in Claude Puel’s side have been well and truly answered, with shrewd acquisitions during the summer providing Nice with more balance and quality. Coral still believe that Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco are the favourites to battle it out for the Ligue 1 title, but the signing of maverick striker Mario Balotelli may prove to be the turning point for Nice. Although the Italian arrived on a free transfer following a difficult spell at Liverpool, there were concerns that his temperament and ego would disrupt the harmony in the dressing room. His attitude has certainly let him down in the past, with several misdemeanours and bust-ups threatening to see his obvious talent and ability go to waste.
He arrived in France with a big point to prove as his career was on the downward spiral, but early indications would suggest that Balotelli has found his feet at a club where he feels loved and appreciated. Five goals in just three league appearances has seen the Nice fans take to him instantly, with the Italian excelling in his role as the main attacking threat and feeding off excellent support provided by Younes Belhanda and Wylan Cyprien. Scoring a brace on his home debut against Marseille was undoubtedly the best way for Balotelli to introduce his arrival in Ligue 1, with another brace in Nice’s superb 4-0 home win against Monaco and a sublime winner against Lorient further emphasising the point that, when he gets his head down and focuses on football, Balotelli is one of the best strikers around.
His red card against Lorient made many people jump to the conclusion that Balotelli had self-imploded once again and that he would never lose his “bad boy” image wherever he is. However, the truth was that the second yellow card issued by the referee was extremely harsh, with league officials overturning his suspension after Olivier Thual admitted that he made the wrong decision. It will enable Balotelli to take to the pitch in Nice’s upcoming clash with Lyon, and they’re the obvious bet to win the game with Coral as Les Gones have struggled to hit any sort of consistency form in the opening weeks. His presence on the pitch will be a big boost for Nice who appear to be getting the very best from Balotelli who looks more focused and hungrier to succeed for the first time in years.
Being nominated for the Player of the Month award for September is just reward for the impact that Balotelli has made in Ligue 1, and while lingering doubts over his temperament remain, he appears to have found his home at Nice. The player himself has recently declared that he feels good at the club, although it may come as no surprise to those who saw a major transformation in Ben Arfa at the Alianz Riviera last season. From enduring a miserable time at Newcastle and becoming embroiled in contract issues which delayed his debut for Nice, Ben Arfa lit up Ligue 1 with a series of magical performances as he was instrumental in Puel’s side finishing fourth; Nice took him under their wing and reignited his stalling career in some style. Although the midfielder opted for the riches at PSG than to remain a first-team regular at Nice, there is hope that Balotelli will not do likewise and jump ship at the first opportunity. His return to prominence is great to see, and if he continues to focus on football and not become his own worst enemy again, then Nice could have a big say in the title race.