Written for Exepose [The University of Exeter Student Newspaper], I give the inside story on why OGC Nice find themselves top of the table.
Paris Saint German’s questionable start to the season has translated into a metamorphosis of apathy to excitement surrounding the eventual outcome of Ligue 1.
Hanging onto the third rung, the reigning champions continue to falter in their attempts to climb the ladder; Monaco allowing Unai Emery’s men no purchase, whilst OGC Nice have opened up a vacuum of points.
In reality, OGC Nice would occupy top spot regardless of PSG’s form. Currently four points ahead of Monaco, and six ahead of PSG, OGC Nice have evolved at a spectacular rate. Going into this weekend’s round of fixtures they’re undefeated, winning their last four league matches.
Finishing fourth in the previous season, many expected Lucien Favre’s team to struggle as they brought in a flux of new players, losing several key men. Quite perversely, they have progressed.
Claude Puel had taken them from the depths of Ligue 1 into a Europa League spot before his departure to Southampton in the summer. Indeed, this is not where the connection to the English South Coast ends: like The Saints, Nice have demonstrated a startling ability to regenerate, to lose players such as Hatem Ben Afra, but still maintain and improve upon themselves.
With limited financial resource, Favre, who had replicated Puel’s success with Borussia Monchengladbach, promoted from within, handing opportunities to Nice’s youth products. Yoan Cardinale, at age 22, is a regular between the posts and Malay Sarr is the only player to start every match this season, aged 17. Favre has unearthed a potential star is Sarr; averaging 89% pass completion and three interceptions per game, the 17-year-old left back is attracting attention from Europe’s top clubs.
Married with the young, but surprisingly robust defensive youngsters is the exuberant and fruitful attack – Alassane Plea, aged 23, is in prolific form for his club, netting six goals so far this season. Of course, Mario Balotelli, serial headline material, has received a large portion of media coverage for his five goals in four starts. The Italian forward suffered in the footballing wilderness last season, but looks to have found a place where a manager understands his capricious temperament and is capable of unleashing the potential he undoubtedly has.
Central to Nice’s impressive form is Favre’s preference for a back three, providing a defensive base, including the experienced Dante, from which his side can spring lethal counter-attacks. They currently top the table in fewest goals conceded and are second only to free-scoring Monaco in goals scored. With a defensive three returning to fashion, also adopted by Antonio Conte and Chris Coleman’s odds-defying Welsh team, Favre has identified a system that suits and utilises the qualities of his personnel.
While Favre has compiled a balanced and rounded squad, it remains unlikely that they will have enough to cause a huge upset in knocking PSG off their perch. The quality Emery possesses, coupled with the financial resource at his disposal, should he need it, means that Nice will have to produce something unprecedented to steal the title from under the noses of a Paris metropolis. Favre’s squad comprises a total of just 40 million euros; a paltry number when one considers PSG splash such figures on only one players, serving to strengthen the suggestion they will eventually run out of steam and quality.
But, did we not say the same thing about a small club in the midlands?