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FEATURE | Nîmes have been gutted this summer, but their likely saviour is called Zinedine Ferhat

It always proves a challenging task when a team loses their star player, but it’s a cycle that is common practice for many Ligue 1 clubs. They lose one standout talent and look to line-up a replacement for a lower fee or to promote from within via their academy. This helps meet budgetary requirements for the latest financial year, whilst maintaining a similar cohesion and dressing room dynamic in the squad.

Nîmes Olympique have been touted by many to occupy a relegation spot by May 2020. After a strong 9th placed finish in 2018/19, they went into the transfer window knowing that their star player, Téji Savanier, was moving on. However, supporters of Les Crocos would not have predicted the subsequent mass exodus that followed.

Antonin Bobichon’s move to Angers, last week, saw him join his former team-mates Rachid Alioui and Sada Thioub. From all Nîmes players last season, that featured for more than 1500 minutes (12), half are no longer at the club.

Sporting Director Laurent Boissier left for five weeks following tensions with president Rani Assaf. Bossier also expressed a need to spend more time with his family, even though during his short absence Bossier was working with the club to recruit players he had previously identified. These included Sidy Sarr (Châteauroux) and Lamine Fomba (Auxerre). On his recent return, Boissier has brought some stability and focus back to the club, who otherwise looked in serious trouble. However, of his astute signings, one stands out.

Zinedine Ferhat was viewed by many in his home country of Algeria to be not of a Ligue 1 standard. It’s an opinion perhaps fuelled by bad blood in the past with Algerian fans. After a brilliant 2015/16 campaign where he reached the finals of the African Champions League and U23 AFCON; won the Algerian domestic division with USM Alger and finished top of the assist charts with 10 assists – Ferhat was a man in form. However, whilst at the Algerian U23 training camp, Ferhat left to sign for Le Havre without notifying any staff. This cost him a place at the summer 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

Ferhat has struggled to break into the Desert Foxes squad, perhaps due to the national team’s penchant for ignoring local talent during his early domestic career. In the few caps he has been awarded, the USM Alger youth graduate has often been played out of position in central midfield and this was another setback on his trajectory with Les Fennecs.

Off the back of this adversity and in his last two games vs Monaco and Brest, Ferhat has produced man of the match performances that have birthed optimism into what was initially a negative season for Les Crocos.

With Ferhat, Nîmes have seemingly replaced many key elements of the squad that were lost during the summer exits. Although the fast-paced dipping set-piece deliveries of Savanier that were a hallmark of any Nîmes game last campaign are hard to replicate, Ferhat’s ability to deliver exceptional crosses from all situations should not be ignored.

These helped him break the assist record in Ligue 2 with 20 assists in a single campaign. In the recent dramatic 2-2 comeback against Monaco, he demonstrated this expertise, delivering two assists of totally opposing styles. One cross picked out teammate, Romain Philippoteaux, in between the Monegasque centre backs and allowed the latter to control the ball on his chest and poke it past the on-rushing Benjamin Lecomte. The equalising pass was a low ball across the box to find Kevin Denkey at the back post, who couldn’t miss.

Replacing their key creative outlet from last season with one of the best from Ligue 2 was always going to be an impressive move for Nîmes. Nevertheless, they also lost both their starting wingers in Denis Bouanga and Sada Thioub, who added a variety of ingredients to the Nîmes Olympique experience. Bouanga had a brilliant first touch and the explosive ability to beat a player. Thioub, on the other hand, was renowned for his surging ability to carry the ball using an unconventional dribbling style. It seems that the former Le Havre winger has all of these attributes to hand.

Nîmes have used Ferhat in a similar way to Thioub, as he is also a great driving runner with the ball and is crucially able to sustain this over long distances. His first goal against Brest consisted of him picking up the ball in his own half and striding towards goal with multiple touches of the ball forwards, until he tucked the ball underneath Gautier Larsonneur. Like Bouanga, Ferhat also possesses a great first touch and is not one to shy away from a 1v1 situation, often coming out the victor.

With the latest signing of Lucas Deaux in mind, which provides the team with a consistent Ligue 1 performer who adds rigidity to their midfield, Nîmes don’t look in as dire circumstances as they seemed to be facing before a ball had been kicked.

Young midfielders Sarr and Fomba will need time to adjust to Ligue 1 football, but both have a good level of talent that should flourish the further into the season we go.

However, it is in Zinedine Ferhat, a player who has transitioned seamlessly from Ligue 2, that the survival of the southern outfit will rely on. Having recently been called up to represent Algeria by Djamel Belmadi, his performances could perhaps be enough to deliver a 3rd consecutive Ligue 1 season to the Stade des Costières.

T.W.

 

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