Nice face a huge task to qualify for the Champions League after a 2-0 first leg defeat that arguably should have been a loss of a bigger margin. Their opponent Napoli look to be in ominous form and completely outplayed the French side in the first leg. However, thanks to some last ditch defending by Nice and poor finishing by Napoli Nice head back home with some hope of turning around the tie.
If Nice want to give themselves a chance of qualifying, then they will need to improve on their first leg performance.
In the first leg, Napoli gave a clinic in how a team can pin back the opposition into their own half through the use of pressing. Napoli allowed Nice to play the ball out of the back, and organized a line of pressure about half way into Nice’s half. Napoli essentially allowed Nice to advance the ball. By doing this, Napoli ensured that they would have space to attack when they won the ball back, and at the same time restricted Nice to fairly useless possession.
Napoli’s job was made easier, because Nice were extremely poor at advancing the ball into forward positions, with Saint-Maximin being the only Nice player who threatened the Napoli backline consistently. Both Alassane Plea and Pierre Lees-Melou often gave the ball away or made the wrong decision when in possession. Nice’s attacking impotence was partly a symptom of Nice’s wingbacks being pinned back most of the game. Christophe Jallet has never been known for his attacking prowess while Malang Sarr is a centre back converted to a left back and has struggled for form this season.
Nice will need to take risks but must be clever in their game management. Napoli are a talented side on the counter and conceding an away goal will virtually eliminate any hope of qualification. This puts Nice in a strange position of needing to score two goals but not wanting to overcommit too early. A lot of responsibility will be placed on the more experienced members of Nice’s starting eleven such as Dante to ensure that Nice do not let naivety be their downfall.
Team News and Tactics
Nice are missing Alassane Pléa and Vincent Koziello after the pair both received red cards in the first leg. Les Aiglons will also be without the services of Bassem Srarfi who is injured.
Lucien Favre has a number of options when it comes to Nice’s system and personnel. In the first leg, Nice lined up in a 5-3-2 which was supposed to transition into a 3-4-3 when in possession. However, Nice sat deep for most of the match and ultimately their lack of attacking threat cost them. For the second leg, Nice will have Mario Balotelli available and the Italian is expected to replace Plea in the lineup.
Lucien Favre will also have the luxury of utilising new signing Wesley Sneijder who did not register in time for the first leg. Because of Nice’s desperation for goals, Sneijder will most likely start which begs the question of what system Favre will choose to implement.
The Swiss tactician could choose to slightly alter the 5-3-2 shape and start in a 3-4-1-2 with Sneijder playing in the #10 role behind Saint-Maximin and Balotelli. However, this would mean starting Malang Sarr at centre back and Christophe Jallet at left wing back. Jallet is a good defender but lacks the pace to be a sustained attacking threat down the wing while Sarr’s inexperience will also give Favre pause.
The other option is a 4-2-3-1 with Sarr dropping to the bench and Lees-Melou playing as the right winger. Koziello being suspended also poses the problem of who replaces him in the centre of the pitch. The starting spot seems to be a toss-up between Adrien Tameze or Remi Walter. However, neither of the two midfielders possess Koziello’s skill on the ball which will add to Seri’s responsibilities.
Predicting Napoli’s lineup is a much easier task. Maurizio Sarri will almost certainly play his standard 4-3-3 system and looks likely to start the same eleven that played the first leg. Dries Mertens has been training by himself but Sarri has stated that the Belgian striker is not in doubt. Should Mertens be unable to start then Arkadiusz Milik will take his place. Amadou Diawara and Piotr Zielinski are also possibilities to start in midfield.
Mario Balotelli (Nice) – The Italian striker won the Champions’ League in 2010 with Inter Milan, but has not played in the Champions league since 2014. Now Nice’s chances of qualification rest on his shoulders and his ability to take the chances that come his way. There will be no room for error and any appearance of Balotelli’s typical petulance could be disastrous for Nice. The Italian may find himself isolated for most of the match, but what he does in those brief moments when he has the ball will decide whether Nice triumph and advance to the group stages or fall at the final hurdle.
Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) – The tricky winger missed several good opportunities in the first leg that would have increased Napoli’s margin of victory and essentially finished the tie. Insigne is of vital importance to Napoli’s system of play and his partnership with Marek Hamsik and Faouzi Ghoulam has been one of the main sources of Napoli’s attacking success. Napoli will almost certainly get space to counter at some point in the match and whether Insigne can capitalize on these opportunities will go a long way to deciding if Napoli can secure a comfortable victory or face a nervy second leg.
I can’t look past Napoli to win this game. They are superbly coached and their attacking potency will be too much for Nice to contain. Nice scoring an early goal would not surprise me, but Napoli are too good a side to fall at this stage. Nice’s squad is filled with holes and I just don’t think they have the talent to compete against the Italian club. I expect Napoli to comfortably progress to the Champions’ League group stages.
Prediction: Nice 1-2 Napoli