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Leading the pack, but how long can Nice’s run last?

Nice have been the surprise packages so far in Ligue 1. Photo: AFP

Nice have been the surprise packages so far in Ligue 1. But can they go the distance? Photo: AFP

Nice were really not expected to be where they are this season. Yes, Les Aiglons are a solid side, and finished in a decent fourth spot last term. However, given the way PSG simply cruised to the Ligue 1 title last term, many had figured that this season’s title race would be over even before it started.

Well, that is not how things have turned out so far. Heading into matchday 12, Lucien Favre’s side were six points ahead of the chasing pack. Six points means that regardless of whatever Monaco or PSG achieved, Nice would still go into the international break as league leaders. Unfortunately, Les Aiglons had their wings clipped by Caen this past weekend, and that gap has now narrowed to three. With approximately two-thirds of the season to go, anything can happen between now and May. Nonetheless, there is already a growing sense of anticipation among French football fans as to whether this term will truly be one to remember.

Surprise results have become less uncommon as of late. This year alone, sports fans witnessed Leicester City, a team who were threatened with relegation just 12 months before, win the Premier League title – at odds of 5,000 to 1. Baseball followers were treated to the Chicago Cubs clinching the World Series after 108 years. And outside of sports, Donald Trump, against all odds, beat lifetime politician and heavy media favorite Hillary Clinton to become the next president of the United States.

So, indeed, anything is possible. Here are a few reasons why Nice, then, could potentially upset the odds and end PSG’s stranglehold on the Ligue 1 title.

An absence of expectations

Last seasons, Nice finished in fourth. The last time Les Aiglons clinched any silverware was in 1997 when they beat Guingamp on spot-kicks to win the Coupe de France. And it has been nearly half a century since they were crowned champions of France.  Their budget presently is a mere sliver of that of PSG and Monaco, but they do have something in their corner: an absence of expectations. It’s often said that  the absence of expectations results in the reduction of disappointments. In Nice’s case, little is expected of them this season. Finishing in fourth was an impressive achievement in itself as they are featuring in the Europa League, so to end up in a Champions League berth would be a monumental milestone.

Still, as we saw before, no one expected Leicester to achieve what they did last term. At the very least, Les Aiglons were not flirting with relegation during the 2015/2016 campaign, meaning that they have a much better platform to build on. With PSG dominating the way they have been as of late, no team are expected to realistically be able to challenge them. Not even Monaco. And so, it is in this absence of expectations that Nice could quietly go about their business and just like Leicester, upset the proverbial apple cart at the conclusion of this campaign.

Players keen on proving a point at Nice

After a turbulent past few seasons that had seen him here and there, back and forth between England and his native Italy, many had written Mario Balotelli off. At 26, the enigmatic striker’s career, which once held so much promise, appeared destined for one of those “what could have been” stories. So, when Nice finally decided to take a gamble on him – after many sides had rejected him – not much was expected of this union.

There was an air of pessimism as Hatem Ben Afra’s defection to Les Parisiens had Nice fans fearing the worst.  Balotelli now leading the line, optimism is back at the Allianz Riviera as he has appeared to be totally revitalized in Ligue 1. With six league goals so far, he’s slowly begun to found his form, and above all, seems to be really enjoying his football again. Even current Azzurri coach Giampiero Ventura hasn’t ruled out a re-call for him if he can keep this up, but naturally still remains wary, which in itself will be added motivation for “Super Mario” to excel. And just as he’s taking a like to life in France, Nice’s fans surely are happy to have him within their ranks.

Is the stage really set for Nice to make an entrance?

The question is, will both of these factors be enough to see them through? Well, one can argue that the club are in solid hands. Lucien Favre may not have ended his tenure with Borussia Mönchengladbach on the best note, but he was largely responsible in the team reviving their fortunes. When he arrived, they were near the bottom of the league. In his full four seasons, they never finished below eighth, and ended up in third in his final term there.

Hence, we have an ambitious coach with a proven track record of revitalizing teams. A crop of players eager to redeem themselves. And a team who has largely flown under the radar.

Sounds familiar? Well, if Leicester City could do it, there is no reason Nice can’t do likewise and turn what has become a predictable title race in France into a much more entertaining affair this season.

 

 

Wed 9 Nov, 2016
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