Around Europe: Mediterranean derby extra tense with Nice and Marseille on diverging competitive paths

Sunday’s Mediterranean derby, the meeting of Nice and Marseille, was identified as a high-risk fixture by security authorities as soon as the calendar for the French Ligue 1 season was drawn up.
Nice's new signing Mario Balotelli at a press conference on September 2. Valery Hache / AFP
Nice's new signing Mario Balotelli at a press conference on September 2. Valery Hache / AFP

Match to watch: Nice v Marseille, Ligue 1, 10.45pm (UAE time), Sunday

Sunday’s Mediterranean derby, the meeting of Nice and Marseille, was identified as a high-risk fixture by security authorities as soon as the calendar for the French Ligue 1 season was drawn up.

Away fans have been prevented from buying tickets, advised not to travel along the Cote d’Azur.

Some of Marseille’s ultra loyalists have bad history in this local collision. Some of Nice’s followers have acquired a reputation as trouble-makers, too.

But in the lead-up to Nice against Marseille, it is the risks taken and contemplated at executive level that have dominated the chatter around both clubs.

• Big Weekend Preview: Manchester derby and a Messi-less Barcelona

Nice made one of the more dramatic statements at the close of the summer transfer window by signing one Mario Balotelli, a footballer whose transition through various clubs has frequently caused his employer to wince at the risk he carries, whether due to indiscipline or inconsistent form.

“Me, I don’t regard myself as a risk,” Balotelli told reporters on arriving in France, a new country and new league for the Italy international who turned 26 last month.

The form guide says Nice have taken a chance. In 2014/15 Balotelli scored one Premier League goal for Liverpool in 14 matches. Last season he scored the same number in 20 appearances on loan for Milan, the club he had, in a previous spell, scored 26 goals in 18 months.

That period, from early 2013, now looks alarmingly like the distant peak of his powers.

Liverpool, and their manager Jurgen Klopp, had apparently little hesitation in accepting Nice’s offer to take over responsibility for a shade under €5 million (Dh20.6m) of Balotelli’s annual salary.

Nice coach Lucien Favre has reportedly told Balotelli he is delighted to have him, although he will assess carefully his match fitness before including him in his starting XI.

Nice has many nightclubs, one journalist pointedly told Balotelli when he was presented to the press. “I didn’t hear that comment,” said the player, once famed for keeping late hours.

Yet Nice may equally be the place to rediscover himself as a footballer. There is an encouraging precedent.

Nice thrived last season thanks in large part to a rejuvenated Hatem Ben Arfa, former malcontent of French football, and, like Balotelli, a maverick with magic in his feet.

So thoroughly did Ben Arfa apply himself that Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the dominant force of Ligue 1, signed him this summer, barely a year after he seemed unwanted and was out of work.

Along the coast at Marseille, risk assessment of another sort is under way. Assessing it is one Frank McCourt, 63.

He is not the first billionaire to be intrigued by the sleeping giant that is French football’s most followed club, but his prospects of becoming its majority shareholder have advanced a great deal further than some of the other prospective takeovers of Marseille this century.

Should, as widely anticipated, McCourt secure control by the end of next month, his initial purchase price could come to as little as 10 seasons’ worth of a Balotelli salary.

McCourt has credentials in sport, having bought and later sold a majority stake in the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball franchise.

But Marseille is an unwieldy, temperamental beast. There is work to be done, and a great deal to be spent, on lifting the current squad to a level where they might challenge for consistent qualification for the Uefa Champions League, let alone turn themselves into an institution that can compete with PSG.

Marseille’s summer transfer window was characterised by exits: Michy Batshuayi off to Chelsea; another striker, Georges-Kevin Nkoudou off to Tottenham Hotspur; captain and goalkeeper Steve Mandanda also flying to London, to join Crystal Palace.

Marseille have looked a little rudderless and linger in the bottom half of the table.

Nice, however, began the weekend in third place, unbeaten, able to look at Balotelli as a luxury, if risky, addition to their resources.

Player to watch: Ousmane Dembélé (Borussia Dortmund)

Nineteen years old and now the owner of his first two full caps for France, Ousmane Dembélé has joined what looks to be one of European football’s paciest attacks.

His task is to justify his place in it, and the heavy price tag that Borussia Dortmund honoured to take him on.

Dembélé’s star has been rising for the last 12 months. The winger, blessed with acceleration and adhesive close control, only signed his first senior professional contract last October, for Rennes, the club who had nurtured him. “He is capable of going to win the Ballon D’Or,” forecast Mickael Silvestre, the former France and Manchester United defender, and now an executive at Rennes.

He made his Ligue 1 debut for Rennes last November at 18, and, by March he had reached double figures for league goals. No one in the French top-flight had passed that landmark more quickly, not even Anthony Martial, for whom Manchester United paid close to €50m (Dh244million) – excluding add-ons – to Monaco just over a year ago.

Several Premier League clubs, including the Champions League quartet of Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and Leicester City, were reported to be interested in signing Dembélé this summer, and the player said he had spoken to Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri. Bayern Munich apparently pursued a deal, but it was Dortmund who paid an initial €15m (Dh73.3million), assuring the teenager he would see regular first-team action.

He has done so far, ahead of Saturday’s trip to RB Leipzig. He started the first match of the Bundesliga season, and is looking forward to featuring prominently alongside the collection of sprinters that make Dortmund so effective on the counter-attack. They are Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, at centre-forward, new recruit Andre Schurrle on one flank, Dembélé the other. Marco Reus, another dasher, is also on his way back from injury.

Eligible through his family tree to play for Mali, the France-born player is now committed to the French, having made his senior competitive debut as a substitute for France last week in a 2018 World Cup qualifier against Belarus. He came off the bench against Italy in the previous week’s friendly.

“I have followed him for a long time,” said France coach Didier Deschamps. “And he has the kind of pace and versatility that can win matches.”

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Published: September 9, 2016 04:00 AM


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