PARIS (AP) - It is about time for Mario Balotelli to start scoring away from home.
The Italian striker’s return from suspension is much needed for Nice, which faces a difficult match at Bastia on Friday after losing ground last weekend. Nice unexpectedly dropped points by drawing 0-0 against struggling Metz, and Balotelli’s absence - through suspension - was felt.
The draw played into the hands of free-scoring Monaco, which moved to the top on goal difference, and defending champion Paris Saint-Germain, now only three points behind.
Nice will be stronger with Balotelli leading the line, considering he averages nearly a goal a game since joining on a free transfer from Liverpool in the offseason.
But the worrying statistic for Nice is that his eight league goals - and nine of the 10 he has scored overall - have all been at home.
When Nice plays at home, it often dominates possession through its slick midfield and Balotelli, with his outstanding ability to hold the ball up, is regularly involved in the quick and neat approach play. It’s a different story away from home, where Balotelli often drifts in and out of position as he roams for space to create opportunities out of nothing.
Nice coach Lucien Favre needs Balotelli to be at his disciplined best on Friday, rather than in improvisational mode.
Balotelli, who has a long history of controversy on and off the field, will also have to keep this cool.
Although Bastia is only one place above the relegation zone, the Corsican side is always fiercely motivated at home, where the passionate locals at the compact 20,000-capacity Armand Cesari Stadium reserve their most vitriolic and hostile welcomes for southern clubs Nice and Marseille, and for PSG.
Because of the seething animosity between Bastia and Nice fans - there have been violent clashes in the past - France’s Interior Ministry decreed a ban on travelling fans. Any daring Nice fans trying to circumnavigate the ban will be prevented from trying to reach the island of Corsica either by sea - via the ports of Nice, Marseille and Toulon - or by air.
Nice deplored the ban, which it says “automatically deprives its fans of passion for the umpteenth time.”
Favre, who took charge in the offseason after leaving German side Borussia Moenchengladbach, is bracing himself for a heated encounter.
“There’s always something special about this game, so I’ve been told,” said Favre, who replaced Claude Puel after he joined Premier League club Southampton. “In football, you always have commitment, headers, tackles. It’s part of the game, if it’s fair. It’s up to us to react properly. You must control your emotions.”
Lorient’s players can hardly be looking forward to the trip to play Monaco, given how many goals the French leaders are scoring.
Last weekend’s 4-1 rout of Marseille made it 60 league goals in 20 games - comfortably more than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues - and 86 in 33 games overall this season.
Bad news for Lorient, which is languishing in 19th place and has conceded 39 goals - more than any other team in the league.
Monaco must be relieved it did not sell Colombian striker Radamel Falcao after he spent two unsuccessful seasons on loan at Manchester United and Chelsea as he fought back from a serious injury.
Falcao has been an inspirational captain, scoring eight in the past seven games and 17 in all competitions this season.
Behind him and strike partner Valere Germain, the midfield quartet of Tiemoue Bakayoko, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and Bernardo Silva is striking a good balance.
Bakayoko and Fabinho do much of the holding work, thus freeing up the skillful Lemar and the quick Silva to roam free.
They were unstoppable against Marseille, with Lemar scoring an audacious lob and Silva netting twice.
A TIGHTER DEFENSE
PSG is looking for a fifth straight win when it travels to play Nantes on Saturday.
Following a rocky spell just before the mid-season winter break, PSG has won its two league games and two cup games since without fuss and without conceding a goal.
But Nantes could be a different proposition, especially given how well the team is playing under coach Sergio Conceicao. Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Caen was the sixth in seventh games since the former Portugal winger took charge in early December.
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