Heading into the current campaign, many assumed that Paris Saint-Germain would ease into their fifth consecutive Ligue 1 title. After all, the Parisians are one of the richest clubs on the planet and have superstar players such as Angel Di Maria, Marco Verratti, Edinson Cavani, Thiago Silva, and Blaise Matuidi. While PSG may still accomplish this impressive feat, there is an unlikely club currently atop the French league table: OGC Nice.
Though Nice have stumbled in their Europa League group stage matches this season, as they are currently bottom of Group I, the French club have been extremely impressive through their first 14 league matches. Despite failing to record a victory in five preseason matches, the team has only lost one Ligue 1 game, and have already recorded impressive wins over Marseille, Monaco, and Lyon.
Nice does have a few well-known players in their side, including Mario Balotelli, Younes Belhanda, and Dante; however, there are quality players in the Nice team that are not exactly household names. Central midfielder Jean Seri has been superb for this club. In his 12 league matches played so far this campaign, the Ivory Coast international has recorded seven assists (most in Ligue 1). At just 5’5”, Seri may receive comparisons to Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, but due to his more offensive style and superb passing abilities, he is more comparable to Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla.
Utility man Ricardo Pereira has also performed exceptionally well for Nice this season. The 23-year-old defender/midfielder can play as a full back (both right and left), defensive midfielder, and on the right side of midfield as well. Whoscored.com has ranked Pereira as the highest-rated player in Ligue 1 this season.
Paul Baysse and Malang Sarr, along with the aforementioned Dante, have also formed a formidable central defense for Nice. Baysse, who has not played since October 20th, is currently third in Ligue 1 with 7.4 clearances per match. Sarr, a 17-year-old France youth international, has featured in every Ligue 1 match so far this season, only being on the sideline for 16 total league minutes. Due to the outstanding defensive contributions of Baysse, Sarr, and Dante, Nice have only allowed 10 league goals during the 2016/17 season (second fewest to PSG).
Although it has been fantastic for these played to step up for the club, there’s no doubting which Nice player needs to have a big campaign for this team to keep momentum: Mario Balotelli. The former forgotten man in Liverpool was given a chance to prove himself once again when the Italian striker accepted a transfer to Nice this summer, and he hasn’t disappointed. While Balotelli has battled a few different injuries since his arrival to the French Riviera, the 26-year-old has netted seven goals in nine total matches with Nice.
In typical Balotelli fashion, he has either racked up a goal or a yellow card (sometimes both) in every match he has featured for Nice this season. It also must be said that while the Italian has been sidelined due to injury, Alassane Plea has picked up the slack for his teammate. Plea, 23, has scored eight Ligue 1 goals on the season, but five of these goals have come while Balotelli has been injured.
Nice are not quite a Leicester City fairytale story, as the French club have won four Ligue 1 titles (all in the 1950’s); however, with an average league finish of 11th over the last decade (including three near relegations to Ligue 2), it would be a significant shock if Les Aiglons were to mount a title challenge this season. Manager Lucien Favre will hope that Balotelli can get back to the pitch as soon as possible, although it looks like he’ll be out for at least another week or two, and keep Nice’s momentum going into the second half of the season.
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