Balotelli has found another gear at French Ligue 1 club Nice.
Mercurial Italian providing crucial goals as French club close in on their best finish in Ligue 1, writes Ian Hawkey
Just ahead of last Sunday’s first round of French presidential elections, some spoof posters appeared on billboards in the Mediterranean city of Nice. They had a single theme. “Vote OGC Nice” was the most obvious, OGC being the acronym for Olympique Gymnaste Club, the formal title of Nice, currently the third best football club in France.
“Veni, Vidi, Seri” trumpeted another poster, celebrating Ivorian midfielder Jean-Michael Seri.
“Generation Koziello,” read another, praising Vincent Koziello, Seri’s partner in Nice’s midfield.
There was also a poster for the man who is … well, Nice’s standout poster-boy.
“Mario Balotelli,” it stated, “Calm Strength.” Calm? Balotelli? It is an unusual description of the Italian striker, who last summer made the south of France the latest stop-off in a career of dramatic ups and downs.
Yet it is not misplaced.
There have been enough cool, calm moments in front of goal to mark out this season as the best, and happiest, Balotelli has enjoyed for a while.
Nice and their poster-producing fans are grateful to him for significant contributions in a journey to what will be the club’s best finish in France’s top flight for over 40 years.
The club will take at least third place in the final league table and with that earn a shot at an unprecedented spot in the group phase of the next Uefa Champions League. They may finish higher if their showdown with Paris Saint-Germain, title-holders and second in Ligue 1, goes their way tomorrow.
Any slogan that celebrates Balotelli’s calm power is novel given the catalogue of controversies that followed the player through his prodigious youth at Internazionale, his time at Manchester City and that peppered his periods as an AC Milan player. Then there is the impotent spell at Liverpool, who let him go free to Nice. “Why Always Me?” were the words Balotelli once had printed on a T-shirt he wore, very publicly, as headlines kept being generated around him while he was in England.
At Nice, they fondly, proudly insist: “It’s not always Mario”.
Yes, Balotelli’s 15 goals have given the team an important push, often at crucial times, but one satisfaction Swiss manager Lucien Favre can take from his first management job in France is how Nice have functioned as a collective. Favre had a tough task when he arrived.
Nice had finished fourth in Ligue 1 last May, a significant uplift and heady heights for a club operating on a budget that barely put them in the top half of Ligue 1’s economic table.
But from the Nice of 2015/16 significant players had moved on, such as striker Valere Germain, who went to Monaco; midfielder Nampalys Mendy, who departed for Leicester City; and Hatem Ben Arfa, the mercurial forward whose renaissance at Nice had led PSG to hire him on a superstar salary.
Balotelli came in to replace Ben Arfa, like for like in that he is a maverick with match-winning qualities but question marks over his reliability. The club have made the most of Balotelli’s marketability and assumed certain risks.
His wages are by far Nice’s highest. His form had been poor. His season at Liverpool had yielded one Premier League goal.
His subsequent loan year at Milan had yielded a single Serie A goal.
Balotelli promptly scored five times in his first three Ligue 1 matches, two of those benchmark-setting wins over Marseille and Monaco.
Since then, the itinerant Italian has suffered injury absences and a pair of red cards and suspensions. But he has run into form again in the last month or so, the period that saw Nice, who led the league for a third of the season, assure themselves of at least the bronze in the current season.
Balotelli has also learnt it need not always be about him.
The goals of Allasane Plea and Wylan Cyprien were as valuable as Balotelli’s as Nice set the pace in Ligue 1. When Plea and Cyprien were both struck with injury, Mikael Le Bihan, who had been out recovering from a serious leg fracture for 17 months, popped up with important strikes. “We have kept pace with two big juggernauts in French and European football,” said Favre of the pursuit of PSG and league-leaders Monaco. “We intend to give our maximum to continue doing that.”
Balotelli’s 15 goals have given the team an important push, often at crucial times
Mario Balotelli has kept his eye on the ball in helping Nice climb to third in France’s Ligue 1. And they may go even higher.