Nice had done well last weekend to earn a win over Lorient to keep pace with Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain in the title race, despite finishing with ten men. Les Merlus had beaten Nice in the Coupe de France in January, and while the team had been missing key performers Jean Michaël Seri and Younes Belhanda in that match, Bernard Casoni has had the Breton club in better goal-scoring form since taking over in November. Wylan Cyprien scored an early goal, however, and that was all Nice needed to hold on for the win, picking up three points on a weekend when Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain could only draw to keep pace in the title race.
The dismissed player in last weekend’s match was, inevitably, Mario Balotelli, and the Italian’s absence was set to leave Nice short handed as they hosted Montpellier on Friday. It was not, however, that Balotelli had been doing much to influence matches in a positive manner; he has accumulated more red cards (two) than goals (one) in his last five league starts, disappointing more often than not after a strong start to his time with the club.
More damaging was the fact that his absence, combined with Monday’s news that Alassane Pléa, the team’s leading scorer, was out for the season after coming off against Rennes. Having brought in only the promising but untested winger Bassem Srarfi and the veteran midfielder Mounir Obbadi in January, Nice were thus left without an orthodox striker for this weekend’s match against in-form Montpellier, the visitors have won three of four matches since Jean-Louis Gasset replaced Frédéric Hantz last month.
Youngster Anastasios Donis had played as a striker a handful of times in the Europa League, but Nice had been lining up in a 3-5-2 in those matches, so the Juventus loanee played next to one of Balotelli or Belhanda. In the absence of the injured Ricardo Pereira and the out-of-form Malang Sarr, manager Lucien Favre has switched to a 4-3-3; despite being a pacey player and a willing runner, tasking the slightly built Donis with leading the line on his own did not look to be the most appealing option. When Montpellier scored a slightly fortuitous opener through Steve Mounié, an already grim situation looked potentially catastrophic; leaders Monaco would be facing out-of-form Guingamp the next day and could pull six points and goal difference ahead of Nice with a win, all but ending the team’s title hopes.
Nice, despite their success this season and last, have never been a big-spending club. It was only the sales of Nampalys Mendy and Jordan Amavi in recent seasons that have allowed them to spend on any significant level; while the team have been buoyed by the investment of a group of Chinese investors this summer, their influence on the playing squad seems to have been directed towards wages rather than transfers.
The €5m paid for Wylan Cyprien was the club’s biggest outlay this summer, and their overall net spend was still positive on the back of Mendy’s €15.5m move to Leicester City. Modest though Nice’s spending this summer was, it still demonstrates a marked increase over the previous one, when €1.5m for Mickaël Le Bihan represented the height of the club’s ambitions.
The previous season’s leading scorers, winger Eric Bauthéac and midfielder Carlos Eduardo had departed that summer, and Le Bihan represented a necessary purchase, albeit an unproven one. He had impressed in Ligue 2 with Le Havre after breaking through at Sedan, and his record of eighteen goals in 36 matches represented an impressive return. Neither a sylph-like poacher nor an agricultural target man, Le Bihan’s skills spoke to a versatility that could be useful in constructing a new attack along with Hatem Ben Arfa, Pléa, and Monaco loanee Valère Germain.
Initially used off the bench after arriving late in the window, Le Bihan finally got his first start against Bordeaux in Week 7 last season, impressing with a goal and an assist. Physically imposing enough to hold up play but also a willing runner to create space for his teammates, he looked a good fit in Nice’s up-tempo attack.
However, disaster struck when a broken leg ended his season prematurely, eventually needing surgery. He remained out of action until last month, when he made a run of appearances with the reserves, his condition and sharpness finally impressing enough to be included on the bench on Friday. With no other attacking players available and Donis doing little but running about, Lucien Favre rolled the dice and put on Le Bihan, who responded with two well-taken goals to give Nice a victory that had seemed, to be charitable, unlikely, in the match’s early stages as Montpellier sought a second goal.
For the first, just eight minutes into his return, Le Bihan saw Valentin Eysseric getting forward with the ball at his feet and pulled away from the winger towards the edge of the penalty area, nimbly shaping his body around the ball before firing home with his right foot. The second was equally sublime, running on to Arnaud Souquet’s through ball and holding off Daniel Congré before shooting across the face of goal, once again with his first touch.
In the end, the result was not without its nervy moments, as Ryad Boudebouz struck the post from a free-kick in injury time, but it was three points nonetheless, putting the pressure on their title rivals ahead of their matches later in the weekend. As he ably demonstrated, Le Bihan’s one-touch finishing and runs away from goal can allow him to play in a style not dissimilar to his erstwhile teammate, Germain.
Not the quickest player, nor the most prolific scorer, he can succeed simply through movement and graft, creating space for others while remaining a scoring threat himself. Tactically, he has the physical presence to lead the line in a 4-3-3, but could also partner one of Balotelli or Belhanda in a 3-5-2 if Favre decided to bring that system back upon the return of Pereira. Given how often suspensions and injuries have forced Nice to change systems this season, that versatility could be a real boon to the team’s title hopes.
Of course, despite his good performance at the weekend, one must be cautious about putting the cart before the horse with the striker’s potential. Montpellier are hardly known for their defensive solidity, and Congré was himself making his first start after missing more than six weeks through injury. Beyond the calibre of opponent, after such a long lay-off, Le Bihan’s fitness may also yet be an issue, but the counter to that is that there is no sense he had been rushed back.
Having started and played the majority of the match in each of the reserves’ last four games, he may even be in better condition physically than he would have had he been with the first team, as opportunities would have been harder to come by as third-choice behind Balotelli and Pléa.
Players suffering a serious injury and never returning to their best is a not-uncommon occurrence in Ligue 1 recently, as Lyon’s trio of erstwhile internationals, Yoann Gourcuff, Clément Grenier and Nabil Fékir, can attest. Fékir is starting to look back to his best again after netting a hat trick in the Europa League last week, but it has taken him a similar amount of time to Le Bihan to reach that level, albeit recovering from a more serious ACL injury. Gourcuff and Grenier, for their part, have been relative non-entities in the last three seasons, cautionary tales of the pitfalls of injury changing a player’s career.
If Le Bihan can avoid the fate of Lyon’s midfielders, there may yet be life in the current season, both for player and club. Nice’s next three matches are against relegation candidates Dijon, Caen and Nantes, while both Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain have European and Coupe de France matches as well before the international break, with the Coupe de la Ligue final to follow in early April. Again, it is difficult to extrapolate too much from one match, but if Le Bihan’s fitness stays at a sufficient level, he could very well be an unexpected catalyst as Nice’s season, once seemingly derailed by injuries, reaching an unlikely conclusion atop Ligue 1.
1 | During his press conference before the visit of Dijon on Friday, Nantes manager Sergio Conceição said he would do something he had never done before in confirming that one of his players, Yacine Bammou, would start, stating: “I hope he will score and that the whole stadium will applaud him.” Bammou, famously, formerly employed by the PSG club shop, had not scored at home since October 2015 and had been the subject of Nantes’ supporters ire since an on-pitch altercation with a colleague at the Parc des Princes in November. However, the committed if often erratic forward seized his chance within three minutes to fire his side in front, instigating a 3-1 win and maintaining the uptick in goals at the Stade de la Beaujoire after Les Canaris’ superb 3-2 triumph over Marseille in the previous home fixture.
The six strikes accumulated over the last two outings better their tally for the entirety of the rest of their Ligue 1 home campaign as Conceição emerges as the man to provide the vociferous fan base and the often overbearing club president Waldemar Kita with the flair and verve that they craved throughout the Michel der Zakarian era and Rene Girard’s ill-fated, short lived spell in Eastern France. Nevertheless, the 22 goals amassed so far still leaves just Nancy as more impotent in Ligue 1, with Nantes having finished as the league’s lowest scorers in 2014/15 (29) and only outscoring hapless Troyes last term (33). However, with Conceição starting to hit his stride and the club as a whole resuscitated from its slumber under Girard, that trend seems sure to change.
2 | ‘Combative’ is an adjective that has a become borderline clichéd description in footballing lexicon for a midfielder who likes a tackle or two and the odd booking even more so. But if anyone deserves to be labelled as such, it is Bastia captain Yannick Cahuzac. His sending off during the disastrous 3-0 loss at Angers, resulting in considerable ground lost to a relegation rival, was his fourth in his last 10 games, and his third in his last four, as the Corsican native with over 300 league appearances for Bastia (his only professional club) crossed the boundary into petulance once more. And this time in bizarre fashion. As Cahuzac, substituted, left the pitch, replaced by Nicolas Saint-Ruf, the fourth official raised his electronic board to display both players’ numbers.
However, in doing so, the board made an unfortunate connection with the Bastia captain’s cheek, bringing Cahuzac to slap the board out of the official’s hand, much to the referee’s displeasure. The ensuing suspension will be his fifth since mid-November and Bastia will once again have to do without one of their most influential players as they slip to five points from of the safety mark. Bastia are a club who often loiter on the edge of the gaping trap door marked ‘Ligue 2’, their formidable home form regularly keeping them from the drop. They boasted the 5th best home record last term, but this season has been different. With just three wins and only outscoring Nantes in the for column at home, the Stade Amand Cesari, and now the ground’s part closure over the next three games as punishment for racial abuse suffered by Mario Balotelli earlier this month, they are losing grip on their form along, perhaps, with their Ligue 1 status.
3 | Although the acquisition of Memphis Depay amounted to a marquee signing, some sections of the Lyon fan-base pointed out that the sizeable fee could have been better spent on weaker areas of the squad, while it remains open to debate as to if Lyon have overindulged financially where they need not have. Four of Depay’s seven outings to date have come off the bench, the Dutchman largely flitting in and out of games as form and fitness slowly return. However, Sunday’s encounter with Metz at Parc OL provided the strongest indication yet that any risk on Lyon President Jean Michel Aulas’ part would be a worthwhile one. Bruno Génésio’s charges overwhelmed Metz with some incisive, fluid interplay from their frontline. Although the first of his brace, which opened the scoring in the five goal thrashing, was a mere tap-in, the second showed the power, intensity and eye for goal that made Depay such a heralded talent in the Netherlands. Jinking into the area, Depay lost out to Metz midfielder Cheick Doukouré, only to immediately wrestle possession back and fizz a shot past Thomas Didillon for 2-0.
Depay’s finishing is not as clinical as he would hope it to be, he was one of many guilty of wasting clear openings but his close control and ability to dispense with a defender are slowly returning, joining Nabil Fékir, Alexandre Lacazette and Maxwel Cornet in twisting and teasing an increasingly dizzied Metz back four. Depay could have had the match ball as early as minute 70 but instead his unselfish attempt to find a colleague rebounded in off the hapless Ivan Balliu to finish the tie. Lacazette toyed with Franck Signorino before firing in the fourth on 78 minutes, his 22nd of this league campaign, before a sublime dink over Didillon from substitute Mathieu Valbuena in injury time rounded off the victory. Although Lyon’s return to the title race may have to wait until next season, the gap to the podium staying at 13 points with their defence still in need of a degree of refining, the 20 goals scored in their last four games proves that they are a frightening prospect going forward, with a Europa League final a distinct possibility come May.
4 | Much like Cahuzac’s affinity for red cards or Nantes’ inability to score goals, Javier Pastore’s obscene injury record has become a maxim of French football in the last 18 months. At the zenith of his powers, the Argentine’s grace and guile makes for utterly compelling viewing, but one of Ligue 1’s best has been absent for long stretches of both this and the preceding campaign with a multitude of issues, not to mention repeated relapses of each. As a result, seeing his name on the team sheet ahead of Le Classique on Sunday night was a triumph for both PSG and followers of the league as a whole. Within 15 minutes his class began to show. A well-worked set-piece had given PSG the lead over Marseille at the Vélodrome, Marquinhos heading home in the sixth minute, Cavani doubling the lead on the quarter hour. Verratti’s arrowed ball was steered effortlessly into Cavani’s path by “El Flaco” for the Uruguayan to nonchalantly flick it over the advancing Marseille goalkeeper Yohann Pelé.
Unsurprisingly, the watershed thumping of Barcelona, despite a hangover goalless draw with a buoyant Toulouse last week, has fully reinstalled the swagger overtly absent before Christmas in Paris, which has been building since the winter break. Pastore’s rabona in the build-up to Lucas Moura’s third typifying the confidence early in the second half, a goal which ended a game that had never made it far as a ‘contest’. PSG proceeded to pass and press Marseille to death. Despite their resurgence under Rudi Garcia, the additions of Dimitri Payet, Morgan Sanson and Patrice Evra (the latter was withdrawn at half-time having been overrun by an electric Lucas) and the intoxicating atmosphere at the Vélodrome, OM were simply not good enough.
A marauding Thomas Meunier squared for Julian Draxler to tap home, before a rejuvenated Blaise Matuidi grabbed a fifth with 20 minutes still to play. Rod Fanni’s consolation will do little to aid the mood in Marseille on an embarrassing night, torn apart by their fiercest rivals. With Monaco and Nice both taking crucial wins, Ligue 1’s title race continues apace, the top three separated by just 3 points with 11 games to play. With Pastore’s return, the Parisian challenge can only be strengthened.
Goal of the Week: Alexandre Lacazette, Olympique Lyonnais.
Team of the Week: Vincent Enyeama, Lille OSC; Christophe Jallet, Olympique Lyonnais; Marquinhos, Paris Saint-Germain, Joris Gnagnon, Stade Rennais, Vincent Bessat, SM Caen; Adam Ounas, Girondins de Bordeaux, Thomas Mangani, Angers SCO, Valentin Vada, Girondins de Bordeaux, Memphis Depay, Olympique Lyonnais; Karl Toko Ekambi, Angers SCO, Ronny Rodelin, SM Caen.