Paris (AFP) – Mario Balotelli starred once again as clinical Nice opened up a six-point gap at the top of Ligue 1 with a 4-1 thrashing of Nantes on Sunday.
The maverick forward, back in form after a nightmare spell at Liverpool, scored his sixth league goal of the season and was involved in two others as Nice took their unbeaten run since the start of the season to 11 matches.
Wylan Cyprien scored a brace and Alassane Plea also netted while Emiliano Sala replied for the out-gunned visitors at the Allianz Riviera, as Nice played with panache and incision.
“We deserved to win but we had some difficult moments, particularly early on,” said Nice coach Lucien Favre.
“Nantes had two good chances and if they had scored at that time, things might have been different.”
Favre made light of Nice’s six-point championship lead over Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain, adding of Balotelli: “He had a full week of rest (after injury).
“But I say and repeat: there is still much work for him to do. Today he did some extra defensive work, which is positive.”
The league leaders were quickly in control of proceedings and Balotelli was at the heart of it as they opened the scoring.
The Italy star ran onto Younes Belhanda’s chip over the top and although he was stopped in his tracks by desperate last-gasp defending, the ball broke to Cyprien to slot into the empty net.
Nice were piling on the pressure and the Nantes backline cracked again as Balotelli ran onto a long ball from Jean Seri and calmly took a touch before placing the ball past Remy Riou and into the bottom corner.
Nantes weren’t completely out of contention and Yacine Bammou should have done better than fire over from Lucas Lima’s cross 10 minutes before half-time.
Nice kept coming, though, and Ricardo Pereira’s goal-bound shot was blocked by Diego Carlos.
But the hosts shot themselves in the foot at the start of the second period as Mathieu Bodmer tried to dribble the ball out of defence on the edge of his box.
He was robbed by Sala, who stroked a sumptuous shot into the top corner on 47 minutes.
Suddenly Nice were reeling and struggling to hold on against a rejuvenated Nantes, with Sala and Mariusz Stepinski spurning good chances.
But the tide turned again on the hour mark as Plea rose ahead to head home Seri’s corner.