As the Champions’ League anthem blared at the San Paolo, a broad grin spread over Allan Saint-Maximin’s face. “In this moment, I was my younger self,” explained Nice’s new lightning winger, “when I was small I played football on the beaches of French Guyana & I would sing the Champions’ League anthem.” Nice, seemingly, had reached their promised land. After some shrewd coaching and astute transfer business, a stunning 2016/17 domestic campaign had brought them to the brink of the Champions’ League proper.
However, after an early season collapse and a difficult summer in the transfer, like Saint-Maximin, it seemed as if Nice were merely dreaming of a Champions’ League future, eventually failing to reach the group stage after being outclassed by Napoli over two legs in the final qualifying round. However their 4-0 routing of champions Monaco in the Cote d’Azur derby this weekend suggests, with Jean-Michaël Seri orchestrating proceedings once more, that last season’s third place finish was no fluke.
Buy out clauses are against Ligue 1 contract rules but this does not stop clubs from arranging a similar agreement with a third party. With his availability subject to such an arrangement, it seemed that Nice’s midfield puppet-master Jean-Michaël Seri would be quickly hoovered up by a top tier club. With Barcelona, PSG and Arsenal eyeing the €40m price tag, his supposed release clause’s July 15th expiry date was never tested by a European giant in the form of a bid.
Nevertheless, July came and went, as did much of August before concrete advances were made; Barcelona, much to Nice’s annoyance, came calling the morning of their Champions’ League qualifier second leg with Napoli and PSG did likewise in the final hours of the window. But with Barcelona’s transfer priorities a mystery (perhaps even to themselves) and PSG worried about Financial Fair Play, both sides withdrew their interest and Lucien Favre clung onto his talisman. As Seri’s commanding, chest-out display in the thrashing of Monaco proved, this piece of good fortune could be a major early turning point in Nice’s season.
Seri’s ice-cool control, composure and range of passing has been a catalyst for much of Nice’s success but after a glorious third place finish last season, it appeared as if Les Aiglons, and perhaps Seri too, had reached their zenith. Being out played in both legs by an admittedly superb Napoli had compounded a terrible start domestically, two desperate losses to a pair of promoted sides, including a 3-0 defeat at Amiens, had been a real low point with the often unplayable Seri of the past, the first leg with Ajax aside, now absent.
Such an alarming drop off in form was frustrating as momentum had been gathering on the south coast for some time. A Hatem Ben Arfa inspired campaign took advantage of Marseille, Lille and Bordeaux’s collective stumbling in 2015/16 to edge into the Europa League before their title bid last term.
To put Nice’s achievement into context (they were top at Christmas) their operating budget for the 2017/18 season is just €45m, compared to Lille’s of €90m, Marseille’s of €120m and Lyon’s of €240m, all clubs which were comfortably outperformed by Nice last season. In financial terms, despite recent Chinese investment, they have gloriously overachieved thanks to some deft stewardship from coaches and directors.
Although Southampton fans may not remember him too fondly, Claude Puel pulled off the managerial magic trick in cajoling thrilling displays from Ben Arfa, moulding a slick, nimble outfit around the usually capricious Frenchman before handing over to Favre who managed to eke even more out of an eclectic squad that included the equally obtuse Mario Balotelli. Meanwhile the pinpoint scouting and skilled negotiation lead by chairman Jean Pierre-Rivère and partner Julien Fournier routinely unearthed talent and maximised comparatively thin resources.
But as Nice lined up against local rivals Monaco on Saturday afternoon, a club whose philosophy often mirrors their own, it seemed Favre, Rivère and Fournier’s carefully and quietly constructed empire had started to crumble. However with a tumultuous transfer window behind them, Favre and his charges were 2-0 ahead inside 20 minutes thanks to a Balotelli penalty and Alassane Pléa rounding off one of many sweeping counter-attacks. By the end they had doubled their lead and Monaco’s misery, who were utterly abject, to rescue much of their pride and restore some momentum.
Understandably, it has taken time for Nice to recover from a frustrating summer, their first 11 being slowed picked apart or unsettled. The pace and mobility in full-back areas, crucial to last season’s success, was stripped away as Inter captured Dalbert and Ricardo Pereira returned to Porto, whilst two key creative outlets in Valentin Eysseric and Younes Belhanda left for Fiorentina and Galatasaray, the latter only at the club last season on loan. Not to mention the loss of centre back Paul Baysse to Malaga, outcast at Saint-Étienne but a towering presence under Puel and Favre.
In fairness, Nice are, compared to the long-term Ligue 1 heavyweights and as their budget indicates, traditionally a smaller club and after such success players being picked off is a matter of course, often at the expense of cohesion or momentum and, much like Monaco, a necessary part of Nice’s strategy. However, this is something that had been dealt with prudently in the past without the team becoming so brittle.
Upon losing Ben Arfa’s creativity and the goals of Valère Germain after the fourth place finish in 2016, Balotelli, Belhanda and Eysseric were added, Wylan Cyprien (one of the league’s outstanding midfielders before injury last season) replaced Leicester bound Nampalys Mendy (who has since returned on loan) while the previously unheralded Dalbert was, in a classic piece of Rivère/Fournier business, poached from Vitoria Guimaraes to take Jérémy Pied’s place. The transition this summer has not been so smooth. The gaping holes at both full-back positions have been barely filled by Christophe Jallet, now 33, while Marlon, making his debut against Monaco on a 2-year loan from Barcelona, is a very late successor to Baysse.
The absence of Belhanda and Eysseric was dealt with far too late in adding Wesley Sneijder. Although the arrival of Sneijder is eye-catching, he was unable to affect their minimal Champions’ League run. With their season starting in earnest sooner than usual with crucial games from the outset, their business needed to be completed quicker if Lucien Favre was going to have a chance to navigate the Champions; League qualifiers successfully.
Crucially, however, Seri remains on the French Riviera as a playmaker and as a leader. Despite not getting a move to the club of his dreams in Barcelona, Seri showed in the Monaco win that, now his immediate future is settled, he is wholly committed to the Nice cause for the season, an attitude that is already proving to be pivotal for Favre as he belatedly rejuvenates the club’s development with some targeted tactical tweaks returning Nice to their best.
Pléa joined Balotelli in attack as part of a 4-4-2, accounting for the Italian’s lack of mobility and affording him much more space on the counter, increasing his effectiveness that can be lacking in more claustrophobic affairs. Meanwhile the marauding yet erratic Allan Saint-Maximin has been reined in by Favre, a pair of out of character perfectly timed passes instigated Nice’s first two goals.
As a result, the rewards offered by the pace and verve of Maximin and Pléa leaves some uncertainty where Sneijder fits into the side. Nevertheless the 4-0 triumph, tearing a listless Monaco to shreds with their rediscovered incisiveness amounted to a sizeable statement from Favre and his Nice side, now the transfer window is behind them and their re-moulded squad has begun to settle, they have proven that they remain a force in Ligue 1.
“I turned the page after August 31. Missing out on a transfer has not destabilised me. It was tough but victories like this are achieved because we are all strong mentally and have forgotten everything,” explained Seri after the Monaco win. Whether Favre makes it to this time next year with his midfield sentinel in-situ is unlikely but until then the Swiss technician has his most talented and trusted lieutenant fully committed to the cause, and the team has its best player ready to lead their charge once more. Another strong season from Seri could have Saint-Maximin and his teammates beaming once more as the Champions League anthem sounds again next autumn.
1 | Wahbi Khazri’s brief and unspectacular time in the Premier League will likely be dimly remembered by Sunderland fans, but his loan move to Rennes could leave those at the Stadium of Light wondering if perhaps he was deserving of more time. This is certainly the case if Sunday’s display against Marseille is any measuring stick. Played nominally on the left side of attack but essentially operating as a false nine, the Tunisian’s movement and inventiveness were much-needed tonic for the visitors, who had been languishing in the relegation zone ahead of the match.
A sublime back-heeled finish in the match’s second minute was later overshadowed by a driven shot from distance by Benjamin Bourigeaud, but Khazri was unquestionably Rennes’ star on the night. His movement allowed fellow attackers Ismaïla Sarr and Firmin Mubélé plenty of space and while he may need more time to get his fitness to a decent level, his potential influence, even in playing only an hour, could allow Rennes to deliver on the expectations many had placed on them after a lavish summer spend.
2 | Ligue 1 has fought well against its reputation for being overly physical and stodgy in the recent past, but this weekend will hardly stack up in its favour. Across the weekend’s ten matches, seven red cards were handed out, along with 44 cautions. Toulouse’s visit to Troyes was particularly bad-tempered, with even more bookings probably deserved in that match, and ending as it did, a scoreless draw, matchday 5 was seemingly lacking in much in the way of excitement, particularly for Les Violets, who have won only once in their last eighteen matches away from home.
Once again, there was simply not enough attacking quality in midfield for Pascal Dupraz’s side, with loan signing Giannelli Imbula particularly guilty of offering a shoddy effort. Imbula has twice moved for substantial sums, first to Porto and then to Stoke, but has seemingly regressed from his stellar 2014/15 season. He is still just 24, but if Toulouse can’t get the best out of the former Ligue 2 Player of the Year, this could be another frustrating campaign for both a club and a player that had seemed on the up not so long ago.
3 | Angers continued their unbeaten start to the season, drawing 1-1 at Saint-Étienne, who never looked threatening after a strong opening spell. While Les Verts did look off the boil, much of the credit for their seemingly anemic performance has to go to the visitors, who welcomed captain Ismael Traoré back into the side after an injury lay-off. Traoré and Romain Thomas have become one of the league’s best centre back partnerships, and in placing his confidence in that veteran pair, Stéphane Moulin has been able to field and increasingly youthful and attack-minded side around them. Aside from Thomas Mangani, who sparkled once more, has generally fielded a very young side in midfield and attack, with Karl Toko Ekambi, at 24, the next-oldest player.
These youngsters are still given to the odd foible, with Enzo Crivelli’s avoidable red card and Baptiste Guillaume’s late miss but two examples from yesterday afternoon, but as they are given confidence and the chance to succeed, Angers will look an increasingly dangerous side. Their next two matches are at home to Metz and away to the famously inconsistent Nice; a sustained tilt at the top six would be a shock to some degree, but without having to balance European competition, Angers could prove one of the season’s real surprises.
4 | Sitting just ahead of Le SCO in the table are Caen, who won their third straight match, 2-1 over Dijon. While it is true the Norman side haven’t faced the sternest tests in that streak, they have looked massively improved defensively this season. Patrice Garande’s signing of Alexander Djiku was a moment of opportunism to take him away from Bastia, but the manager’s decision to use him as a centre back has been a real stroke of genius. Partnering Damien Da Silva, Djiku’s arrival has coincided with Caen having the league’s best defence, a stunning figure given how open Garande’s sides generally are.
The return of Frédéric Guilbert’s powerful presence at right-back has surely helped matters as well, but in Djiku, Da Silva has a counterpart who is quicker and more adept in the tackle, allowing him to sit deep and provide more of not only an aerial presence, but also to dictate play from the back with his range of passing. Previously, with the slow-footed likes of Alaeddine Yahia and Syam Ben Youssef alongside him, Da Silva was forced out of position more often, not only exposing his teammates but leaving himself forced to make risky tackles. With the former Bastia player next to him, more of Da Silva’s natural style can be seen and Caen, seemingly in trouble come the beginning of the season, now look as solid as they ever have under Garande.