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.
In Tuesday's other match, Benfica edged to a 1-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in Portugal.
Konstantinos Mitroglou struck the only goal of the first leg early in the second half when he slotted home from close range after a corner had been headed towards the far post.
Dortmund had a great chance to level in the 57th minute - and earn a valuable away goal - but star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang saw his penalty saved by Benfica keeper Ederson.