While OGC Nice keep pace with the French giants Monaco and PSG in the Ligue 1 title race, it’s Mario Balotelli who continues to dominate the headlines.
Sent off for dissent in the club’s hard-earned victory at lowly Lorient last Saturday week and finding goals and form elusive, few will be surprised that the Italian’s sojourn on the Riviera seems to be going awry.
Back in December at the height of his apparent revival, I did wonder whether Super Mario’s focus could survive the season. When the going got tough, and Nice had to dig out results, would Balotelli grab a shovel?
The evidence of the last six weeks would suggest that the striker still doesn’t fancy getting his hands dirty. Why? Well, what goes on in the hitman’s head remains one of the game’s great mysteries – something a dwindling number of clubs and managers feel they can afford to concern themselves with.
Nice boss Lucien Favre refused to publicly criticise Balotelli after his sending off left his charges grimly hanging on to a one goal lead for the last 25 minutes against the league’s basement club.
But Nice are having to dig deep now to stay with the big two, and unsurprisingly there have been rumblings of discontent amongst the players who at the sharp end of the season are less than willing to carry passengers.
This was always going to be the question with Balotelli. The manner in which he plays, the fact that he only really comes alive when he sniffs a goal is acceptable once he is finding the back of the net. Pre-Christmas, he had done so eight times in nine league appearances.
However, since the turn of the year, he has managed just one goal in six largely unimpressive league appearances.
Perhaps the Christmas break broke his momentum, allowed his mind to wander. Such was the drop off in his form, that Favre had consigned him to bench duty, the Italian only coming back into the first team reckoning with the season-ending injury to top scorer Alassane Plea.
Given the respective power of the three squads hunting league glory, Nice really need everyone to pull their weight. The 3-0 defeat against leaders Monaco at the start of the month would have knocked the stuffing out of many sides.
But not Favre’s men. Since then, they’ve eked out a narrow 1-0 win over St Etienne, come back from two down at half time away to Rennes, and beat Lorient 1-0 despite Balotelli’s red card.
And on Friday evening, they showed their spirit once more, scoring twice in the last quarter at home to Montpellier to snatch another three points on a night when it seemed their perseverance would go unrewarded.
The fact that both goals were scored by Mickael Le Bihan, a player who had not played a Ligue 1 fixture since September 2015 due to a series of injuries, added to the sense that this is a side who won’t simply lay down in the face of overwhelming odds.
Surely the efforts of his colleagues will not be lost on Balotelli? Last week when his team mate Valentin Eysseric expressed his disappointment and dismay at the Italian’s propensity to drop his head when things go against him, it was more a lament than a criticism.
Nice are experiencing a familiar frustration. What an asset in the title race Balotelli would be if he could share their spirit, their work rate, their drive?
But there are still 12 games left. Maybe the full story really hasn’t been written yet? Clearly, he has hit a rough patch, but perhaps this time, Super Mario can buck the narrative?
His 9 goals in only 14 Ligue 1 appearances have played an important part in Nice’s fine season. If he can draw inspiration from the efforts of his underdog team mates, maybe he can deliver yet more?
But if he cannot tap into that inspiration, if his problems are of a bigger order, then maybe this will really have been his last biggest opportunity missed.