Caen clash vital for Nice European hopes
By A. Scott
Saturday's meeting with SM Caen could turn out to be a final home bow for the likes of Lucien Favre and Mario Baotelli, but OGC Nice must maintain their focus on their quest to qualify for Europe.
OGC Nice - SM Caen
There has long been speculation that Balotelli will move on from Nice in the summer after two highly successful seasons on the Côte d'Azur, while coach Favre has been linked with a return to Germany with Borussia Dortmund.
It would be a massive blow for Nice to lose the two driving forces behind their recent success, yet first and foremost they are desperate to secure a third straight top-six finish and UEFA Europa League football for next season.
Unfortunately, that is now out of their hands after they blew a lead given to them by Balotelli to lose 2-1 away at Olympique de Marseille last weekend. They come into this penultimate weekend in seventh spot, three points adrift of Stade Rennais FC in fifth and one behind AS Saint-Etienne in sixth.
Sixth place will now be good enough after Ligue 1 Conforama champions Paris Saint-Germain won the Coupe de France in midweek, beating third-tier Les Herbiers in the final. Finishing there rather than fifth would mean an earlier start to next season, though, just as Nice faced last July when they took on Ajax in the Champions League third qualifying round.
Watch: Balotelli nets opener but Nice lose in Marseille
Nevertheless, right now all that matters for Nice is beating Caen and hoping that Saint-Etienne slip up along the coast in Monaco, and that Rennes drop points away to PSG.
"We can still qualify for the Europa League and we have to do everything we can for that to happen," said Favre in the wake of the Marseille defeat, when he also refused to discuss the Dortmund links. "Now is not the time to talk about that. I am focused on the two matches we have left."
Balotelli's goal last weekend was his 16th in the league this season and his 24th in all competitions. He and Alassane Pléa now have 30 Ligue 1 Conforama goals between them this campaign, just one behind the total tally scored by the duo of Hatem Ben Arfa and Valère Germain two years ago.
Before last weekend, Nice had lost just once in 10, and that loss came against PSG. Nevertheless, they have won just four times in 14 outings since late January, allowing Rennes and Saint-Etienne to steal a march in the race for Europe. The south-coast side desperately need three points here, especially with a trip to Lyon to come on the final day, although they must cope without Pierre Lees-Melou for their remaining games due to a hamstring injury.
Caen still looking over their shoulders
Lees-Melou has enjoyed a fine season since joining from Dijon FCO, scoring or setting up 11 league goals. That includes his strike in the 1-1 draw in Caen back in November, when Ronny Rodelin scored a stoppage-time leveller for the hosts. Indeed, Caen can claim to be something of a bogey team for Les Aiglons, having become the first team to beat them in Week 12 last season - they then got a 2-2 draw at the Allianz Riviera last March having been two goals up.
The Normandy side travel for this game on a dreadful run of eight games without a win after conceding at the death to lose 2-1 at home to Monaco last weekend. Ivan Santini's excellent goal, his 11th of the season, looked set to earn Caen a draw, but they have now picked up just two points from the last 24 available.
Watch highlights: Caen lose at death against Monaco
As a consequence, Caen's top-flight status could yet still be brought to an end after four consecutive seasons in the elite. They are currently 15th, just three points above the relegation play-off place and a more comfortable five clear of ESTAC Troyes in 19th. Coach Patrice Garande is also without defender Romain Genevois, who is suspended for the game against his old club after being sent off last weekend.
"Now we need to focus on Nice and trying to do something there, but we are used to being in this kind of situation so we need to have confidence in ourselves and in our experience to go and make sure we stay up," goalkeeper Rémy Vercoutre told Canal Plus.
Nice: Benítez; Souquet, Marlon, Dante (c), Le Marchand; Tameze, Cyprien, Seri; Saint-Maximin, Balotelli, Pléa
Caen: Samba; Guilbert, Da Silva, Diomandé, Mbengue; Aït Bennasser, Féret (c), Deminguet, Rodelin; Crivelli, Santini