OGC Nice have been the revelation of this season’s Ligue 1, launching a surprise challenge to the rich powerhouses from Paris and the principality. PSG and Monaco may currently sit above Lucien Favre’s side but Les Aiglons (The Eaglets) are still in contention to capture their first top-flight title in almost 60 years.
Colourful striker Mario Balotelli has understandably grabbed a lot of the headlines for his rejuvenation up front, but Nice have also excelled at the back – conceding just 20 goals; only PSG (18) and Saint Etienne (19) have shipped less.
One of the men shouldering the team’s defensive responsibility is, like Balotelli, in possession of a number of high-profile winners’ medals, and is also a well established name on the world stage.
Brazilian centre-back Dante arrived on the Côte d’Azur from Wolfsburg last summer to much fanfare – though not quite as much as his Italian team-mate – having built a reputation as one of Europe’s best defenders during a three-year spell at Bayern Munich between 2012 and 2015.
Dante spent seven years in the Bundesliga in all but, motivated by a desire for a change of scenery, and a reunion with his former coach at Borussia Mönchengladbach, he opted to return to France – his first destination in Europe after moving from Brazilian side Juventude to Lille in 2004.
“I wanted a new challenge,” Dante explains to Sport360. “Wolfsburg weren’t going to play European football, Nice were. And then there was Lucien Favre, whom I knew from my time at Gladbach. That was another incentive.
“He called me a couple of times. He said that Nice had a young squad, but with talent and potential. That’s where I come in – I am a bit older and I have got experience. That way I complement this group well. I enjoy the way he organises the team and how he makes us play.”
Dante arrived in a city that had been rocked by the terrorist atrocity that killed 86 people last July, when a cargo truck drove into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the iconic Promenade des Anglais. It is an incident that resonated with the Brazilian, but did not dissuade him in any way.
“I think it was an isolated incident,” he says. “It was very sad obviously, but it can happen anywhere. In Europe, terrorist attacks are happening more frequently. But life goes on. Everyone is trying to live a normal life.”
On the pitch, there was every reason for Nice to be optimistic last summer after a great 2015-16 season. Favre’s side finished fourth, earning the right to play in the Europa League, but ahead of 2016-17, the club of real estate mogul Jean-Pierre Rivère, were aiming for the stars. The high-profile signings of Balotelli and Dante catapulted Les Aiglons into a global spotlight, but Nice’s centre-back insists the performances of the team have been down to a good work ethic rather than individuals.
“This Nice team is a very solid team,” says Dante, as he contemplates the current fortunes of his club. “It’s been a surprising season, but Nice is sitting in third place because of the hard work that has been put in by the team. We have a good block and that’s why I think we are so competitive and still in the race for a Champions League.”
“Balotelli is a very dedicated and focused player, despite what the media may say or write. He is trying to get rid of that negative image.”
Despite the team focus, Balotelli still understandably continues to attract the attention of the press and the wider football public. He was benched against AS Saint-Etienne and didn’t feature in the squad when Nice drew 2-2 at Stade Rennais last weekend. In the post-match press conference, Balotelli’s replacement Valentin Esseyric appeared to insinuate that the striker was not a good fit for Nice.
“That was a bit of a misunderstanding, or at least a wrong appreciation of Esseyric’s words,” Dante insists. “Balotelli is part of the collective and does a lot for the team. It is not a question of – does Nice play better with or without Balotelli? Rather, it’s clear that he weighs in a positive way on the team.
“He is a very dedicated and focused player, despite what the media may say or write. He is trying to get rid of that negative image. Balotelli is a good player and a good person. He has scored nine goals so far this season and contributes a great deal to the team.”
Balotelli didn’t prevent Nice from losing ‘Le Petit Derby’ against Monaco early in February as Radamel Falcao and Valere Germain tore Nice’s defence apart. It was a tough day for Favre’s side, with Dante admitting: “Monaco were simply the better team to be fair. They were well organised and performed their tasks very well, as you’d expect from a team coached by Leonardo Jardim.”
Monaco face Manchester City in their last-16 tie in the Champions League and Dante feels they may further prove the strength of French football following PSG’s spectacular 4-0 win against FC Barcelona.
“They have a good chance of beating City in the Champions League. Guardiola has been doing well in England, though. You can see that slowly his ideas and philosophy are taking shape at Manchester City. He is doing a good job, but needs time.”
The 3-0 defeat against their local rivals was perhaps a turning point for Nice’s title aspirations but with a young squad, the future certainly looks rosy. With an average age of 23.3 years, Dante says Nice’s roster reminds him of his time at Standard Liege in Belgium.
“We can try [to win the title], but a spot for the Champions League may be a more realistic target. This Nice squad is a young one, with players like Younes Belhanda and Wylan Cyprien. Liege had a young team with Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaine and went on the win the Belgian league title [in 2007]. This is a young group, but a very talented one.”
Five-time winners Barcelona have not failed to reach the last eight since the 2006/07 season but they will need to produce something special to turn this tie around after a PSG masterclass at the Parc des Princes.
Di Maria, on his 29th birthday, got things rolling with an 18th-minute free-kick and Julian Draxler doubled the home side’s advantage just before the break to leave Barca, champions in 2009, 2011 and 2015, on the ropes.
And things went from bad to worse for the Catalan giants as another fine strike from outside the box by Di Maria made it 3-0 in the 55th minute, before his fellow Argentinian Cavani added a fourth with 19 minutes to go.
It was Cavani’s 34th goal in all competitions this season and capped a memorable 30th birthday for the forward.
The result matched Barcelona’s heaviest defeat in UEFA competition and leaves Luis Enrique’s men needing one of the biggest comebacks in European history if they are to turn the tie round at the Nou Camp on March 8.
Real Madrid host Napoli in the first leg of their highly anticipated Champions League last-16 tie on Wednesday.
Here, we look at some key talking points ahead of the game.
Benzema or Morata?
Despite once again expressing his full support for misfiring striker Karim Benzema Tuesday, Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane must surely be privately considering benching the out-of-form Frenchman, who has looked a shadow of his true self for much of the season.
Benzema has failed to score in his last six outings and has often failed to contribute much to general play, and with Alvaro Morata looking sharp in his appearances from the bench there’s every reason for Zidane to give the Spain international a chance.
Zidane will also be pondering the makeup of his midfield, with Luka Modric and Casemiro the only certainties to start. Toni Kroos would normally fall into that category, but he has not played for two and a half weeks due to suspension and postponement, so will be rusty.
There’s also doubt over the fourth mem ber of midfield, with Lucas Vazquez, James Rodriguez and Isco all presenting strong cases. The decision will partly depend on whether Zidane opts for a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation.
Madrid committed to defence?
Zidane rightly pointed out that keeping a clean sheet is a major boost in the home game of a two-legged tie, and he is understandably wary of a Napoli forward line which has been on fire this season.
But would Zidane really be happy for his team to adopt a defence-first approach at the Bernabeu on a big European night? And perhaps more to the point, would the home crowd accept it? The balance between defence and attack will not be an easy one to strike.
Can Napoli maintain their confidence?
A large part of Napoli’s success this season has been based upon their exuberant approach, which has allowed them to adopt a positive and attack-minded approach where they have feared nobody and always backed themselves to score goals.
Playing with such a free spirit at Bologna is very different to doing it at the Bernabeu, though, and tonight’s trip to one of the biggest stages in world football is a major test of Napoli’s nerve. If they can maintain their poise, they could do damage.
Hamsik (R) celebrates with teammates.
The touchline battle
The contest off the pitch will also be fascinating, and there could hardly be more of a contrast between Zidane and Napoli chief Maurizio Sarri. One was an all-time great as a player who is in just his second year as a coach, while the other never played professionally and spent 25 years slowly working his way up the managerial ladder before finally landing a big job with Napoli 18 months ago.