What was the point?
A statement that personifies OGC Nice’s spectacular season that saw them challenge for the title for almost the entire season. They comfortably made the Champions’ League places but ever since that moment, everything has slowly fallen apart.
The 2016/17 season under Lucien Favre already felt like an anomaly, but now even more so. There was no way this team could repeat the feat of the campaign before under Claude Puel, where Hatem Ben Arfa and Valère Germain took them to the Europa League.
Except, they did. Even without those two players, the squad rebuilt itself around it’s young products and some savvy veterans to become an outfit that managed to take four points off Paris Saint-German and three from the eventual champions and their near neighbours Monaco.
So many stood out, some finally realising their potential to others pushing themselves to the next level. Alassane Pléa had beaten out the “superstar” Mario Balotelli, Wylan Cyprien looked like a world beater before his unfortunate injury and Jean Michael Seri hit his prime like a racehorse, galloping into the back pages of Catalan newspapers.
They played attacking football, they wanted to entertain and more importantly, they wanted to be in the big leagues for the future.
Only, they took their eyes off the ball. The board was drunk off the present, without the forethought to prepare for their next hurdle.
At the start of the summer, Nice were at least ready for two building blocks to leave. Seri was to be given a move away having outgrown the club and Ricardo Pereira headed back to Porto, awaiting an even bigger transfer to a top-tier side.
In response, they stocked up with a few midfielders like Jean-Victor Makengo and trusted Arnaud Souquet to fill the Portuguese’s boots at right-back. The Frenchman had impressed when Pereira was side-lined and looked like an easy promotion.
But when other parts started to move, they struggled to keep up.
Younes Belhanda was priced out of a permanent move, opting instead for Turkish football with Galatasaray as he replaced Nice’s new stand-out signing Wesley Sneijder. The Dutchman deemed surplus to requirements for a team that failed to qualify for Europe and at 33, no longer the attractive prospect he once was.
Dalbert Henrique then signalled his intent to join Inter Milan, with the board eventually responding with what feels like a shrug. Favre decided to hang Sarr out to dry as a left-wing back, a position that a small rock would be more useful than the teenager, before finally playing Christophe Jallet in his place.
Again, an aging player with name recognition that was on a team that finished below Nice last season.
Paul Baysse announced his departure at the end of the season, claiming that Nice did not offer him a new deal, yet the club again failed to make a move. Maxime Le Marchand has taken his place, over the young prospect Sarr, and has not looked anywhere near as cultured as the former Saint-Etienne man, despite an impressive showing against Napoli this week.
Why was he allowed to leave so easily?
Mario Balotelli was signed to a new deal, despite his struggles to stay fit in the second half of last season. Was his name recognition enough for the contribution he gives to his team?
Ask Favre, as he said to BeIN Sports after the team’s 2-0 second leg defeat to Napoli at home:
“When you have 1 or 2 who do absolutely nothing on pitch you can’t beat anyone. First (he goes off for) his boot, then a bandage. Mario wasn’t in game.. Balotelli didn’t try. I should have taken him off sooner. We were better when we replaced him with a kid no one has heard of.”
They buckled under the pressure not to sign a replacement for Yoan Cardinale, who has already cost the team games both in the Champions’ League and in Ligue 1. Why is he been given preferential treatment despite his abysmal form?
In fact, it was all of those “big name” players that the board seem to crave that also abandoned them on Tuesday night. They scraped through on luck and Seri alone against Ajax and despite the tough draw, Napoli exposed every single one of their weaknesses.
The aforementioned forward was anonymous, the Dutchman was invisible while Jallet simply couldn’t cope with the interplay from the Serie A side. They were all stuck in an elevator as the Naples team danced around them all evening long.
Each decent move, like the one to sign Allan Saint-Maximin from Monaco to boost their wide options, is under-pinned by a bone-headed one. Like, for example, signing Pierre Lees Melou to boost their wide options.
Three points in three games against opponents they should hope to be beating does not make good reading. Another potential throwaway campaign in the Europa League will also just highlight how thin this team actually is.
The bigger worry may come sooner rather than later, as Favre begins to realise that he’s being taken for a ride. Should they lose him, this team could sink back down the league as fast as they rose up through it.
In the end, the fans deserve better. Those that sung proudly despite what was happening on the pitch on Tuesday night will quieten again if the club continues to bury it’s head in the sand.