Surprise Ligue 1 leaders OGC Nice will face the toughest possible test of their title credentials on Sunday, as they make the trip to champions Paris Saint-Germain for what should be a fascinating contest.
Lucien Favre’s enterprising team have excelled in the French top flight this term, scoring goals at will, defending resolutely and after 16 games, building up a three-point lead at the top of the table. There’s still a long way to go in the campaign, but Nice are looking like a side that can stay the course under the guidance of their savvy boss.
Having dominated the domestic scene for the last four years, the team you’d expect to be in second place is PSG. But they’re in third behind Monaco, four points back on the leaders, and looking to end what has been a testing week on something of a high.
Indeed, manager Unai Emery daren’t lose this one really. The champions were hammered 3-0 by Montpellier in their last domestic match, while in the UEFA Champions League in midweek, they let top spot in the group slip away in embarrassing fashion, only able to muster a 2-2 draw against Ludogorets Razgrad.
There’ll be a pressure on the home players at the Parc des Princes and undoubtedly the manager, who is still searching for a formula early in his tenure. Nice have shown already this term they’re capable of preying on any hesitancies too and have excelled away from home.
Nonetheless, this will be a thorough examination of the stellar early progress made by Les Aiglons under Favre. It’s a match they can approach with confidence and without any real pressure, meaning we should be in for a treat in the French capital on Sunday night.
Where to watch the game on TV and streaming
Even though PSG lost their talismanic forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic over the summer and appointed a new manager to take over from Laurent Blanc, few would envisioned quite a tumultuous beginning to the campaign.
Granted, all is not doom and gloom in the capital. Prior to the loss to Montpellier, PSG have been on a 12-game unbeaten run in all competitions and were slowly clawing their way back into the title picture. But the aforementioned league defeat and the complacency shown in the draw to Ludogorets have triggered big concerns.
It means the spotlight will be trained on Emery this weekend. Of course, it’s early in the tenure of the former Sevilla boss and it will take time for him to impinge his ideas on the team. However, this is a club looking to set immaculate standards and should they slip further back behind a side with comparatively modest resources, it won’t reflect well on the coach.
On the cusp of this one there are big selection dilemmas for the manager too. Angel Di Maria, who sparkled in his debut campaign for the club, has been in torrid form as of late, while there’s a dearth of creativity with Adrien Rabiot and Javier Pastore injured.
New signings have failed to sparkle as well. Grzegorz Krychowiak hasn’t replicated his Sevilla form, Jese has made just one start and Hatem Ben Arfa, who excelled for Nice last term, has found life back at a big club very tough.
Alongside imperious skipper Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani has been the main shining light for this team, with 14 goals in as many Ligue 1 appearances. Emery will be looking to those experienced individuals at the core of the team to give PSG a route back into the championship scrap.
While PSG have underperformed so far this term, Nice have continued to exceed expectations despite enduring a summer of seismic change themselves.
Like the champions, they lost their manager, Claude Puel, and their star player in Ben Arfa ahead of the current campaign. Even so, after their fourth place finish last term, this determined crop of players have trailblazed their way to the top of the pile in Ligue 1 and done so in some style.
A win here would be a major statement, although on recent evidence, not something that’d be beyond Favre and his players. As aforementioned, Nice have proven extremely difficult to beat this season, with the experienced Dante and impressive Malang Sarr, just 17 years old, forming a brilliant defensive partnership.
Further forward, the manager has found a fine blend in the attacking positions, with Wylan Cyprien and Younes Belhanda pulling the strings for the league leaders and in recent weeks Alassane Plea has been a bundle of energy up top.
The chances of Nice in this one received another boost this week too. While their elimination from the UEFA Europa League was already confirmed when they took on FC Krasnodar on Thursday, it was a chance for Favre to reintegrate Mario Balotelli into the team; he’d missed a month of action due to injury, having scored six league goals in as many starts.
It means there are options aplenty for the visitors at the Parc des Princes on Sunday and there’s no doubt they’ll head to the capital looking to impose themselves on the brittle hosts. Do that and the crowd, who booed off PSG after the draw with Ludogorets, will quickly conjure an edgy atmosphere for the home side and one in which the visitors can thrive.
Key Battle – Edinson Cavani vs. Dante and Malang Sarr
For all the disappointment that’s enshrouded PSG this season, one of the most positive parts of the campaign has been Cavani excelling in place of Ibrahimovic up top.
The Uruguay international can infuriate at times due to his profligacy in front of goal, although his willingness to get into dangerous parts of the field so often has to be admired. For defenders, his physicality, work-rate and burst of speed is a nightmare to deal with.
Dante and Sarr will have to be at their watchful best to snuff out his influence, although they’ve formed a formidable base in this Nice team. Dante, now 33 years old, has brought assurance and experience to the team, while his dynamic teenage partner has looked unflappable in his defensive duties and distribution.
Cavani, supported by Di Maria and Lucas, will put this defensive link under duress on Sunday for significant spells of the match. But Favre will be aware that at the moment, if the link to the PSG No. 9 is cut off, they find it very difficult to unpick defenses.
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