The queue of observers waiting to write off OGC Nice‘s Ligue 1 title chances is long, but the club are not ready give up on anything just yet.
Trailing to Montpellier for the best part of an hour on Saturday, that host of doubters would have been more substantial—at least until forward Mickael Le Bihan, returning from 17 months of absence with a double leg fracture, used 30 minutes of action as a substitute to score twice and turn the match around amid joyous scenes.
It was a fairytale, by any standards, and exactly what it meant in the dressing room was clear in the short film below from the club’s official website; not just to Le Bihan, who we can see wiping his eyes, but to the collective, with a number of players tightly embracing him.
One of the most notable features of this happy scene for some will be the absence of Mario Balotelli. The Italian striker was serving a ban after collecting a second red card in the space of six games, which is a large part of the reason that Le Bihan was sent on to save the day. He replaced Anastasios Donis, the 20-year-old who was initially given the task of filling Balotelli’s boots but who endured a frustrating day.
To keep Nice in the race—and they have done extraordinarily well to stay within touching distance of free-scoring leaders Monaco, who they trail by three points, and the mighty Paris Saint-Germain, who lead Nice by virtue of better goal difference—will take commitment and courage. The strong implication in recent weeks has been that Balotelli is lacking a bit of a both at present, in a perceived return to his bad old ways.
It’s not even a sense within the media, but something that has come directly from that dressing room. Midfielder Valentin Eysseric questioned Balotelli’s work ethic on not one, but two occasions recently, as reported here by ESPN FC’s Ian Holyman.
“We see him in training every day, we know he’s a great player,” Eysseric said after a recent game at Rennes. “He could have helped us in games like this where we know he can make the difference. The coach asks for a lot of effort from his squad and doesn’t accept any slackening off.”
The numbers do indeed suggest that has been the case with Balotelli. Overall, they look good, with nine goals scored in 12 Ligue 1 starts. Only one of those has come in his last six matches (five starts), though, along with two red cards.
A player that Jurgen Klopp couldn’t have more comprehensively washed his hands of responded well. Just before Christmas, Balotelli spoke about the work that Favre had done with him, as well his attention to detail in improving his game.
“I think that Favre is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” he said, as reported by So Foot (in French). “He works a lot on tactics, to improve my movements and my runs.”
The real question has to be—what’s changed in the interim? Much of the criticism of Balotelli, from inside and outside the club, seems to be centred around the same old themes. He doesn’t press enough, and he doesn’t run enough (Lille defender Julian Palmieri even suggested, quite disgracefully, that Balotelli used the racist abuse he received at Bastia as “an excuse” for a below-par performance, as per Eurosport, in French).