Nice v Monaco: Balotelli and Falcao — two famous strikers, both Premier League busts, now reviving in France
Perhaps it is the warm sea breeze. Maybe it’s the abundant surroundings of luxury and leisured lifestyles. Something on the Cote d’Azur appears right now to be suiting its resident footballers and bringing out the best in a couple of global superstars whose finest attributes have been in deep hiding for the best part of two years.
On Wednesday night, in Nice, the leadership of Ligue 1 is at stake, graspable by either the hosts, or their visitors from Monaco. These clubs are the remaining unbeaten members of France’s top flight. That is the first surprise of the opening phase of the season in a league wearily accustomed to one team soaring away at the top, even by late September. But moneybags Paris Saint-Germain have dropped points already, including in a defeat to pacesetters Monaco.
In France, PSG suddenly no longer have a monopoly on the most visible individuals, either. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has left France for the Premier League, while another pair of famous strikers, Mario Balotelli and Radamel Falcao, have moved the other way, but not to the capital. Suffice to say Ibrahimovic, who joined Manchester United, has found English football already more welcoming than it was to Balotelli, Nice’s high-profile summer acquisition, or to Falcao, the captain of Monaco.
More European football:
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• Bundesliga lessons: Manuel Neuer still the best in the world — in case you need reminding
Ibrahimovic scored five goals in his first six matches in English domestic football. Which is as many as Falcao, the Colombian, managed in 42 matches between August 2014 and the end of the 2015/2016 season while playing, for one season each, United and Chelsea.
Five goals is one more than Balotelli managed in 28 appearances in 2014/15 for Liverpool, the club who spent over €20 million (Dh82.1m) on him two summers back and have just let him join Nice for free.
Balotelli, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2012, scored just once for Liverpool in 16 games in the league; he then scored just the one league goal in 20 Serie A appearances last season on loan at AC Milan.
Washed up? Apparently not. In two matches for Nice, Balotelli has already scored as many league goals as he did in the last two years. Meanwhile, Falcao’s powerful header in Monaco’s 3-0 win over Rennes at the weekend set his club on the way to their fourth win of the campaign.
Thanks to Falcao’s goals last month Monaco also progressed through the qualifying stages of the Uefa Champions League where he was in the line-up, after a period out with injury, for the away win against Tottenham Hotspur which began their group stage schedule. “The Tiger”, as the 30-year-old Colombian is known, looks ready to roar like he used to at Atletico Madrid and at Porto, where he spearheaded attacks good enough to win major trophies.
Truth is, but for the injury-blighted, anonymous spells at United and Chelsea, Falcao would not be back at Monaco, who loaned him to the two Premier League clubs to save on his vast wages. But they also recognise him as a dedicated professional, and a totemic figure to guide a side of several promising young talents.
Balotelli comes to Nice without those sorts of guarantees about his professional dedication: his career is littered with too many controversies, periods of truancy. What he is, as one French newspaper has it, is “the biggest bling-bling signing into Ligue 1 since Ibrahimovic”. And Nice know Balotelli, 26, has a particular appeal to younger fans. Replica No 9 jerseys have been retailing at a rate of a hundred per day since he made his Nice debut, decorating it with a headed goal and a match-winning penalty against Marseille.
He will never seem discreet. He made himself new friends in the dressing room by giving each new colleague a box full of selected designer clothes. He is impressing his manager, Lucien Favre: “He’s listening hard to what I want him to do with his movements,” said Favre, conscious that, from Jose Mourinho to Roberto Mancini to Brendan Rodgers, many fine managers have become exasperated by the former Italy international.
The last time Falcao and Balotelli met, in two highly charged Liverpool versus United games of the 2014/15 Premier League season, both came off their respective benches as second-half substitutes, marginal actors. On Wednesday night, they are the kingpins of the Cote d’Azur.
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Published: September 20, 2016 04:00 AM