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Europa League PREVIEW | Zulte Waregem vs OGC Nice

This is not a game Lucien Favre and Nice wanted to be playing. Two months ago, they had high hopes of playing in the Champions league against Europe’s elite. However, this dream slipped away as they were soundly beaten by Napoli in the final qualifying tie, relegating Nice to competing in the Europa league instead. Nice enjoyed a superb campaign last season, but one of the few blemishes was their European form.

The French side didn’t make it out of the group stages and it quickly became obvious that their priorities lay in Ligue 1. This season, Nice are arguably a weaker team and their success in Europe could be decided by whether Lucien Favre feels they have enough depth to adequately compete in two competitions. Should Favre feel that his squad is lacking, he will almost certainly focus his attentions on Ligue 1 and use the Europa league as a way to rest and rotate players.

Zulte Waregem enjoyed a positive 2016-2017 season during which they captured the Belgian Cup as well as finishing 3rd in the Pro League. This success was largely driven by Senegalese striker Mbaye Leye who has since left the club as well as Danish midfielder Lukas Lerager who transferred to Bordeaux in the summer.

This season Zulte have started their league campaign solidly if not spectacularly with three wins, two losses and one draw which leaves them in 6th place. For Zulte to have a chance of qualifying from a tough group containing Lazio and Vitesse as well as Nice, they will need to take maximum points from their home games and getting a win against Nice would be a good start.

Team News:

Zulte have started the season playing almost exclusively in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 system, and I see no reason why this should change against Les Aiglons. Despite being widely considered underdogs for this match, Nice should be wary of Zulte’s attacking quality.

The Belgian club have averaged an impressive 2.6 goals per game so far in the League and while this number will most likely drop as the season continues, it does illustrate the attacking threat this team possesses. Nice have shown signs of defensive frailty this season and this could be a potential weakness for the Belgian club to exploit.

Nice are fresh of the back of a resounding 4-0 win against rivals AS Monaco and seem to have finally settled on a first choice starting eleven. Favre has found a way to fit both Alassane Pléa and Mario Balotelli into the same lineup in the form of a 4-4-2 which also affords enough protection for a sometimes suspect defensive unit.

However, there is no guarantee that Favre picks his strongest starting line-up. Wesley Sneijder, Racine Coly, Malang Sarr, Nampalys Mendy, Bassem Srarfi and Ignatius Ganago will all fancy their chances of starting, especially considering Nice have a tough match away at Rennes next weekend.

Danger Men:

Peter Olayinka (Zulte Waregem) – The young Nigerian striker is currently on loan from fellow Belgian side KAA Genk and has scored three goals and provided six assists in just six appearances in the Pro League. At just 21 years of age, Olayinka still has a lot of room to grow and is quite a raw player, however, the quality is there to see and it seems only a matter of time before he leaves Zulte for greener pastures. In the meantime Zulte’s hopes of a successful European campaign will rest largely on his shoulders.

Allan Saint-Maximin (OGC Nice) – After mixed loan spells at Hannover 96 and SC Bastia, Saint-Maximin seems ready to break onto the scene and fulfill his enormous potential for Nice this season. The tricky winger was superb against Monaco in Nice’s 4-0 win, and will play a big part in any success the French club achieves this season. Already possessing lightening pace and good dribbling ability, Saint-Maximin seems to be slowly adding an end product to his game which was an area where he was lacking previously.

Prediction:

Despite Zulte’s attacking prowess, I have a hard time believing that they can pull off an upset against Nice. The French club could potentially start a weakened lineup, but I still think they should have enough quality to leave Belgium with three points.

Prediction: Zulte Waregem 1-2 OGC Nice


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