Youngsters (and Mario Balotelli) fueling Nice’s ride to the top

Through 11 games in Ligue 1, OGC Nice remain undefeated and on top of the table with a six-point lead. This surprise early dominance by a team traditionally known for being pretty meh has lifted the spirits of longtime fans and an entire city reeling from a despicable terror attack this past summer. Nice’s only major achievement in somewhat recent memory was a French Cup title in the 1996/97 season. It had been almost forty years since Nice’s last earned silverware before that. But now, Nice appears to be recapturing the magic of the 1950s, when they were a dynasty, capturing four Ligue 1 titles, including their most recent one in in the 1958/59 season. 

According to the BBC’s handwaving math, players tend to reach their prime at around 27 years of age. By this demarcation, it can be said that the club’s current configuration is largely powered by a core of talented youngsters. Even the main showstopper, Mario Balotelli himself, whose immense talent and impressive start to his career make him feel he has been around for a really long time, is only 26 years old.

Nice’s team is composed of some fine young players who are going above and beyond under Lucien Favre. (Photo by Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the vast void that is summertime in the soccer verse, it was the Mario Balotelli to Nice headline that stole the Ligue 1 spotlight; on the very last day of the transfer season, no less. Over the past two seasons, the talented but troubled striker’s disappearing act has left journalists, pundits, and fans disappointed and puzzled alike. His staggering fall from grace finally culminated in him landing in Nice, a delightfully tempered safe haven, home to a Mediterranean climate as mild as its football club.

Having famously celebrated a goal in the Manchester derby by revealing an undershirt enigmatically reading “why always me?” all the while maintaining a stoic expression like an unpainted blue man group member undergoing an existential crisis, Balotelli may be glad to not be the sole focal point of his club…or soccer fans in general. Despite starting off at an almost unparalleled pace (in a limited number of appearances), Balotelli is surrounded by fellow teammates just as hot. In fact, Balotelli mentioned his reasons for coming to Nice were both for the glorious weather as well as because “there’s a decent group of young players. We’re all about the same age.”

The tantalizing prospect of Mario Balotelli fulfilling his prophecy has surfaced yet again. Will he? Or will he not? (Photo by Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

Currently, the formidable duo of Jean Seri (25 years old) and Alassane Pléa (23) lead all of Ligue 1 in assist-to-goal combinations with three. Seri, the Ivorian central midfielder, leads Ligue 1 in assists with six, while PSG’s grossly priced Di Maria is tied with Rennes’ Paul-Georges Ntep in 2nd place with four. The versatile Frenchman Pléa, who can play as an attacking midfielder or a striker, sits in 3rd place on the goal scoring list of Ligue 1, with seven. In Nice’s week 10 game, Pléa helped his cause with a hat trick, scoring the winning goal in the 84th minute of Nice’s 4-2 win over FC Metz.

In the same game, it was Wylan Cyprien (21) who notched an extra time cherry-on-top of the club’s late win. But in the first half, he worked a one-two at the edge of Metz’s 1/3 before confidently unleashing a delightful long-range dipper that beat the keeper, but bounced harmlessly off the crossbar. The offensive-minded midfielder from Guadeloupe has so far compiled four goals and two assists on the season. For €5 million, the purchase of Cyprien from Ligue 2’s Lens doubled Nice’s 2nd costliest transfers of the summer. Happily for Nice, Cyprien is already well on his way to proving his worth.

Lastly, the defensively-minded Portuguese winger Ricardo Pereira (23) has stacked up a series of solid performances this season. Pereira currently leads WhoScored’s average player ratings leaderboard, with .20 of a point over teammate Seri. Unfortunately for Nice, he is currently on loan from FC Porto and will probably be quite costly by the time his loan expires. At any rate, just to have the loan was a good move by Nice’s management.

Of course, there are a few older veterans who have contributed much to Nice’s success. The defender Paul Baysse (28), who was bought after a loan stint from Saint-Étienne in the previous season, has had impressive performances, playing lockdown defense and scoring two goals of his own. And it would be dishonest to speak of Nice’s current success without mentioning new coach Lucien Favre. Having restored a once proud club in Borussia Mönchengladbach, taking them from relative obscurity to the Champions League, the recent birthday boy (59) riding high with Nice almost feels like an obvious outcome right about now, even if it is much faster than scheduled.

In week 11, Nice comfortably beat Nantes 4-1, with a goal apiece from Balotelli and Pléa, and two goals from Cyprien. Aided by sharp passing, pinpoint crosses, and quick back-and-forth combinations, Nice are not just winning—they are winning with charisma and flair. For the sake of good soccer, for the sake of the underdogs, and for the sake of Nice, let us hope that these youngsters and company can continue their unexpectedly exciting, rip-roaring campaign through the entrails of Ligue 1.

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