Nice owe their ongoing hopes of qualifying for the Europa League next season largely to one man: Youcef Atal.
In last weekend’s clash against Guingamp, the 22-year-old found himself asked by head coach Patrick Vieira to play out on the left wing. For most right-backs, this would be a formidable request, yet the 22-year-old Algerian responded incredibly.
Nine minutes into the game, he struck the opening goal, a superb volley following a long diagonal cross from Adrien Tameze. It was an effort any striker would have been proud of.
Midway through the second half, he got another. This was a very different goal as he showed the instincts of a forward to power through the middle of a clutch of defenders and get the slightest of touches to knock the ball into the net.
Five minutes later, his hat-trick, the first scored by an Algerian in France’s top flight since 1985, was secured, a simple tap in from close range.
Nice had won 3-0 and the makeshift winger, who is now the club’s joint top scorer with six goals, had got the lot.
“I’ve never felt like that in my life,” he said after the game, apparently as disbelieving of his heroics as anyone. “Each time you score, you’ve got a desire to get another.
“The second? When you do something like that, you get by one player after another, you want to go all the way and score.”
It was no coincidence that in the aftermath of such a stellar display interest in his services began to surface, with Chelsea, Tottenham, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid all linked with a player signed from Belgian club Kortrijk last summer for a fee reported to be just €3 million.
Now reports suggest he could be worth more than 10 times that much.
There is no doubt that he has been one of Ligue 1’s revelations of the season, having been nominated for the Marc Vivien Foe Prize, which is awarded to the best African player in the league. With Nicolas Pepe and Ismaila Sarr in competition, it is unlikely he will come away with the gong, yet it is recognition of what has been a superb season.
For Atal even to be at Nice owed something to serendipity. Serge Recordier, who was the scout who spotted him with Kortrijk, had gone to watch their match against Mouscron to track Nigerian striker Taiwo Awoniyi. He was left, however, with a greater impression of the full-back, whose tireless shuttling and direct dribbling make him an ideal player for a side featuring three centre-backs.
“Youcef plays as if he bleeds football,” Nice captain Dante explained back in September. “I saw from his first training session that he has something, that he has football in his veins.”
Vieira raised concerns that the player’s game needed refined “tactically and defensively” at the beginning of the season but has been delighted with his subsequent development.
Speaking last week, the former Arsenal midfielder said: “He’s progressed because he’s worked tremendously. His goals have shown his aggressiveness to get into good areas to score. He’s got a good spirit and he’s been paid off for his efforts.”
Nice’s defensive work has been their strength this term – only Lille have conceded fewer Ligue 1 goals – but without many recognised offensive options, Atal has been a vital weapon, whether playing from deep or on one of the flanks.
“He’s an electric player,” Guingamp boss Jocelyn Gourvennec commented, having been on the wrong end of Sunday’s whirlwind. “He was confident after his first goal and he was very difficult to counter.”
With a defensive game that continues to improve, the player is adamant that his future lies as a full-back, where he will likely find himself positioned in a week’s time against Nantes owing to a suspension for Patrick Burner.
“I prefer playing right-back,” he said after last weekend’s treble.
“He won’t move next season,” club technical director Gilles Grimandi, another former Gunner, said last month.
His stance has since been backed by Vieira, but with some of Europe’s biggest clubs hovering, their lure will be difficult to resist for this up-and-coming Algerian star.