The striker looks to be finally fulfilling his potential under coach Lucien Favre
On Friday night, the moment was all set for Mario Balotelli to take centre stage once again.
With his Nice side leading Lyon 2-0 and ten minutes left on the clock, referee Ruddy Buquet pointed to the penalty spot and their number nine stepped up to deliver the coup de grace.
The short run-up and stutter were rolled out as usual, but goalkeeper Anthony Lopes hadn’t read the script, pushing the shot around the post, meaning Balotelli had failed to score from the spot for only the third time in his professional career.
In other circumstances, it might have been a headline story, but such is the form and fettle of Lucien Favre’s side at the moment, Balotelli’s miss was merely anecdotal on another glorious night at the Allianz Riviera, Les Aiglons’ impressive home. It’s a footnote for another reason, of course – that it’s the closest that Nice’s new superstar has come to letting them down since arriving in a blaze of publicity on transfer deadline day.
Despite drawing a blank on Friday, Balotelli has five goals in four Ligue 1 starts, with a typically firm right-footed finish in the Europa League match at Krasnodar (in which he played through a nasty bout of flu, underlining his commitment) bringing him up to six in six in all competitions.
After netting twice on his debut against Marseille, helping his new team to a thrilling win, the 26-year-old has remarkably managed to keep up the pace – and to capture the hearts of the club’s relatively small, but highly passionate group of fans.
Image: Mario Balotelli, center, kicks the ball during the League One soccer match between Nice and Lyon. Claude Paris AP/Press Association Images
Balotelli has already made a considerable mark on France. So much so, in fact, that Wednesday’s edition of L’Equipe, the nation’s premier sports newspaper, carried a five-page special examining the Italian striker’s budding renaissance on the Côte d’Azur, adorned with the cover headline ‘Mario Balotelli L’indomptable’ (‘The untameable Mario Balotelli’).
He has certainly filled a gap, both nationally - where an international figure of standing and considerable charisma is very welcome in the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic vacuum - and locally, after the centrepiece of last season’s team, Hatem Ben Arfa, joined Paris Saint-Germain.
The parallel with Ben Arfa has, predictably, been drawn extensively, given the mercurial France international’s roaring success in rehabilitating himself from a career rock-bottom in the same environment in which Balotelli is attempting to do something similar.
That should, in fact, read almost the same environment. Claude Puel, the coach who reaped the rewards of allowing Ben Arfa all the liberty that he required to express himself, left the club in the summer and ended up at Southampton.
His replacement, Lucien Favre, has been quite a find, doing the near-impossible in improving a team that last not only Ben Arfa but also top scorer Valère Germain, midfield anchor Nampalys Mendy and right-back Jérémy Pied.
The Swiss coach’s overall input is there for all to see: Nice are enjoying a best-ever start, unbeaten after nine games and top by four points after Friday’s result, having conceded just five goals so far.
Meanwhile, his relationship with Balotelli is a fascinating one. When speculation first surfaced that Nice were keen on the Liverpool outcast in mid-August (a move propelled by president Jean-Pierre Rivere), Favre seemed lukewarm at best.
Ultimately, he has offered Balotelli all the accommodation he needed, but not for free. Conscious of his new striker’s lack of pre-season action, Favre (known for his attention to detail) and his staff have meticulously managed his comeback, mixing extra training with supplementary days off.
The coach has refused to get carried away with Balotelli’s immediate impact, talking about the “long process” of getting him back to his best. His teammates have helped, with a young team including Vincent Koziello, Jean Michael Seri and Wylan Cyprien able to do the heavy lifting for him in an athletic sense, which suits him down to the ground.
Perhaps most strikingly of all, Balotelli really looks like a man who’s enjoying himself under Favre, something which he hadn’t resembled for a very long time on the field before he arrived at Nice.
L’Equipe may talk about an ‘untameable’ player, but maybe Balotelli has met his match in his new coach, a man who – from guiding Borussia Mönchengladbach to an improbable escape from relegation in 2011, and then to the Champions League – has a flair for the near-impossible.