With 12 games to go in the Ligue 1 season, OGC Nice’s form has been rewarded with a 13-point lead over Olympique Lyonnais. Lucien Favre’s team are unsurprisingly favourites to land a UEFA Champions League qualification place, however there is a lifeline for OL and it all comes down to Mario Balotelli.
Last weekend could be a turning point in the season for Bruno Genesio’s team, and their last few months of the campaign relies of the erratic Italian forward as it does their own squad.
Taking on bottom placed FC Lorient, a 15 minute Wylan Cyprien strike was enough to earn Nice the three points away at the Stade du Moustoir, the performance was marred by Balotelli’s 68th minute red card.
Balotelli’s Sees Red
Mario Balotelli saw red again
It's becoming a regular thing for the Nice striker this season
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) February 19, 2017
Goalkeeper Yoann Cardinale played a goal kick up field, aiming for the Italian, there was a soft foul on Zargo Toure and as both players turn away you can clearly see that referee Tony Chapron is taking no action, then as the troublesome forward starts to job, the man in black reacts.
It was clear that Balotelli had said something, enough to warrant a straight red card. Yet, his coach was clear not to throw his striker under the bus.
“I am not like that. It’s clear that going down to 10 when there are still 25 minutes to play, it’s tough,” Favre said, via the club’s website.
“Before every game, my final words in the changing rooms are to not get a red and not to give away a penalty.
“I didn’t see what happened. Some words must have been said… I don’t know.”
It becomes another blot on the former Manchester City forward’s copy-book and another key moment after his recent motivation was questioned.
“Mario had a good week in training, he was more involved, even if you need to back him up a lot because of him getting back into position.”
Questioning the Italian’s attitude
Nice need Balotelli, more now than ever. His commitment to the cause was put under the spotlight recently, when midfielder Valentin Eysseric made some revealing comments about the 26-year-old.
Speaking to beIN Sports, he said that his team-mate needed to “think more about the team and work more for us,” and that the Liverpool flop sulked when everything did not go his way, hinting: “It’s a shame he’s like that and that his head drops.”
That was before the 2-2 draw with Rennes and after the game the TV station got him to clarify his thoughts and the 24-year-old didn’t for one second go back on his comments.
“My words were sincere, I told the truth,” said Eysseric, his goal and assist helped Les Aiglons gain a point from 2-0 down. “It’s sometimes a shame he’s like that, that his head goes down. We see him in training every day, we know he’s a great player.”
“I think he shouldn’t have anything to do with us, even if I have respect for all my teammates. He’s really head and shoulders above the rest. It’s a shame.”
“He could have helped us in games like that where we know he can make the difference. The coach asks for a lot of effort from his squad, and doesn’t accept any slackening off. We’ve seen that with Mario.”
Huge Blow for Nice
— Ligue1 English (@Ligue1_ENG) February 21, 2017
The game against Rennes was crucial, Balotelli wasn’t in the squad, officially due to illness, but as top scorer Alassane Pléa limped up the pitch with a knee injury, the importance of his strike partner was made even more crucial.
After the Lorient victory, Nice confirmed that the damage suffered by the 23-year-old would be enough to rule him out for the rest of the season, leaving him on 11 goals for the campaign.
— Robin Bairner (@RBairner) February 22, 2017
With Balotelli suspended and the uncertainties over where his mental state is, that removes another nine goals from the team. Nice have only scored 42 this term, putting a lot of pressure on midfielders like Eysseric, Wylan Cyprien and Jean Michel Seri.
20-year-old Greek forward, Anastasios Donis came on for Pléa and scored his first Ligue 1 goal against Rennes, but it is a huge ask for him to carry the burden of both missing forwards.
A Lifeline for Lyon
Memphis Depay records his first assist since moving to Lyon, setting up Corentin Tolisso for his second goal against Dijon. pic.twitter.com/r2NKu6yayi
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) February 19, 2017
That’s what will give Lyon hope. Less than 24 hours after the Italian’s red card, OL were 2-1 down at home to Dijon, but home-town heroes Corentin Tolisso, Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir all scored in the last 10 minutes to earn a 4-2 victory at ParcOL, keeping the gap to 13 points.
Les Gones still have the abandoned meeting with FC Metz to replay on February 26. That will be behind closed doors at the Stade Saint-Symphorien after crowd trouble stopped the Week 16 tie. A win there takes the gap to 10 and OL will be on the march.
They take a 4-1 aggregate lead over AZ Alkmaar on Thursday and will hope to get the job done over the Dutch side to keep the momentum going.
At no point in this campaign have Genesio’s men been able to win four games in a row, that needs to change this week, maybe then the club can begin to believe ahead of the trip to Bordeaux on March 3.
On the road, they have still to face Paris Saint-Germain, Rennes, Bastia, Angers, and Montpellier, a minimum of 13 points could be required there, but it’s at home where their form must improve.
TeamOL ❤? pic.twitter.com/FcOJokqDbA
— corentin (@CorentinTolisso) February 20, 2017
Still to draw a game, it’s the four defeats that hurts them, no one else in the top five has lost as many games at their own ground.
After Metz, they welcome Toulouse, Lorient, Monaco, Nantes and on the final day of the season, Nice come to the ParcOL.
Following the form from the start of the season and Nice could easily finish with 80 points, that would be too much for Lyon to realistically catch, however, with Pléa out and Balotelli’s head not in the game, the third-placed side will be looking over their shoulder, rather than ahead to PSG in second.
Favre’s team still have to go to Nantes, Lille, Toulouse and Marseille, plus host Bordeaux, and the Parisians.
One of Ligue 1’s main attractions is the unpredictability that anyone can beat anyone. When you cut off the head of the snake, Nice become a much weaker opponent and the clubs down the bottom of the table will smell blood.
Balotelli, with his presence and goal-scoring threat, becomes the most important player at the Allianz Riviera. If he sorts his attitude and shows that he wants to play, he will fire Nice into Europe’s elite competition, but if he sulks, they will suffer.
That all adds up to a magnificent chase for the last Champions League spot. Any slip ups from the Cote d’Azur side will help Lyon’s belief, it’s then up to OL to take full advantage, that must start on Friday with a win over Metz.