It might not be official, but Nice will finish third in Ligue 1 this season, despite the efforts of Mario Balotelli, who has recorded a career-best season.
Lucien Favre’s side slipped to a 2-1 derby defeat against Marseille at Stade Velodrome, leaving them six points behind second-placed Paris Saint-Germain with just two matches of the season remaining.
It was just Nice’s third loss of the league campaign, yet their goal difference is so inferior to the defending champions that catching them is impossible. Every cloud has a silver lining, though, and for Balotelli that was creating a piece of personal history.
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His goal against OM might not have been the prettiest he will get this season – he turned the ball over the line from point-blank range by smartly using his shins – but it does mean that he has scored 15 in the league this term, the first time he has ever achieved that feat.
There was also an embarrassing moment late in the game, when the attacker appeared to injury himself kicking the ground instead of the ball, though it’s not clear whether it was Balotelli’s body or pride that was left more bruised by the incident five minutes from time.
Otherwise, it was a rather quiet outing from the 26-year-old, who will have at least caught the eye of his coach with some flashes of defensive work. Florian Thauvin was also made award of the Italy international’s unexpected work rate when he was clattered by the forward in a 50-50 challenge, leading to an injury that saw him ultimately withdrawn.
Balotelli’s industry – or reported lack thereof – continues to be a major talking point. Former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini said this week that the Nice man should be one of the top players in the world.
“He has so much quality that, when he started his career, he should've been at the level of Ronaldo. If he isn't there now, then at least some of that is his own fault,” he told TMW Radio.
Speaking on the same show, Balotelli admitted: “I had a few problems over the last two seasons and played really badly. Now I am back on track, let's say.” One of those hiccups was a disagreement with then-Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, who now finds himself at Celtic.
Feelings clearly still run deep between the two because when the Northern Irishman was asked the greatest player he had ever coached at the Bhoys’ Player of the Year awards night, he sarcastically quipped: “Mario!” Having been the butt of a joke, the Italian took to Twitter to respond.
Mario now, though, is happily settled in Nice, and though his future beyond the summer remains unclear, it is evident that he is enjoying his time in the south of France.
Indeed, he was even spotted posing next to the ‘I Love Nice’ sign earlier this week, while he also posted an Instagram video proclaiming: “Beautiful Nice”.
But, however much he has taken to the city, the city has also taken to him.
He regularly displays fan art on his Instagram account and he offered one of the coolest pieces yet on Friday.
It depicts him in the Nice home kit with his initials on the side of his head. Instead of his mohawk haircut, though, there is the head of an eagle – the symbol of the football club, whose nickname ‘Les Aiglons’ when translated into English means the Eagles.
And so there are only two matches of the season remaining. Next week is Nice’s final home encounter of the campaign, in which they will attempt to protect their undefeated record in the league at the Allianz Riviera this season.
Coupe de France finalists Angers are the visitors, but Nice are the hot favourites to overcome a side struggling to find form. If it does prove to be Balotelli’s last match on the Cote d’Azur, he will want to go out with a bang.