Stade Rennais FC - OGC Nice
Patrick Vieira's maiden season in Ligue 1 Conforama may not have been spectacular, but the former Arsenal, Juventus and Inter Milan midfielder has fashioned an effective side that comes into Week 32 in seventh place, three points off fourth.
They have scored just 23 goals but have amassed 47 points — the first club ever to have achieved such a total with so few strikes — and added a 13th 1-0 win of the 2018/19 campaign last weekend thanks to Dante's header against Montpellier Hérault SC.
The victory was all the more significant given none of the sides above them in the table won in Week 31, opening a path to Europe for Vieira's men.
"We saw the results and knew there was something to be done," said midfielder Pierre Lees-Mélou. "We started the game in the best of fashions, and we played a great first half in particular. With all the chances we had, it's a shame we only won 1-0 with a goal from a set-piece and that we didn't manage to kill the game off earlier, but we're not going to grumble, we're very happy to have the three points.
Vieira: 'Situation isn't bad'
"We believe we can do it. We have always said that nothing had been decided and that we wouldn't give up. We know it's not going to be easy, we're not in Europe yet. On Sunday, we have another big game at Rennes. We need to recover well to be able to attack again."
"We have seven games left, anything can happen, but our situation isn't bad," said Vieira, who left New York City FC last summer to take the job on the Côte d'Azur. "We can hope to achieve some great things. It's good to be at the same level at Saint-Étienne and Marseille. Each match will be very important, but we have nothing to lose. We're going to try and win at Rennes next week."
Allan Saint-Maximin's return from injury for the Montpellier game gave Nice verve up front, and helped compensate for the absences of Youcef Atal, Christophe Jallet, Adrien Tameze and Myziane Maolida.
Saint-Maximin — Nice's top scorer with six — will be key as Vieira's side aim to cure the travel sickness that has ailed them this season. They won on their last trip with Lees-Mélou scoring the only goal against his former club Dijon FCO, but had lost five in a winless eight-game run 'on the road' they will hope does not resume at Roazhon Park.
They will be comforted by the fact they have not lost to Rennes in seven meetings, and their hosts have gone off the boil in recent weeks.
Julien Stéphan's side now look likely to only have a chance of playing in European competition next season by beating Paris Saint-Germain in this month's Coupe de France final.
A run of just three wins in 12 league games has left them floating aimlessly in mid-table, six points off fifth place which will provide UEFA Europa League football if they lose to Ligue 1 Conforama title-winners-elect PSG in the final at the Stade de France on 27 April.
Their midweek 3-1 loss at Nîmes Olympique added to the disappointment of the 3-3 draw at Angers SCO last weekend when a late Jeff Reine-Adélaïde goal denied them a victory that they have now been waiting on for four matches.
The Nîmes loss posed the double problem of Benjamin André red card just before the half-time break, and means the Rennes captain will be suspended for this weekend's visit of his hometown club.
"It's certain it's going to handicap us," said Stéphan of the loss of his influential midfielder, who was dismissed shortly after Rennes had got back on level terms. "Without that red card, we could have taken control of the game.
"At ten against ten, we were beaten by two exceptional Nîmes goals, but we tried right to the end, we tried. We just lacked the strength and a ruthless streak, but I have nothing to fault my players' attitude for. Now, we have to get back to winning ways against Nice before we can think about fifth place."
Rennes: Koubek – H.Traoré, Da Silva, Mexer, S.Doumbia – I.Sarr, Gélin (cap.), Bourigeaud, Hunou – Ben Arfa, M.Niang
Nice: Benitez – Burner, Hérelle, Dante (cap.), M.Sarr – Danilo, Tameze, Lees-Melou – Atal, Diaby-Fadiga, Saint-Maximin