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

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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

Valery Hache / AFP

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.

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