Puel proving Nice guys don't finish last
They have a prolific goalscorer with Balkan heritage who used to play for Ajax, a commanding South American centre-back, a demanding, successful coach and are the form team of Ligue 1. The answer? No, even Paris Saint-Germain are currently having to play second fiddle to the best side in France, OGC Nice.
Claude Puel's men have picked up 26 points from their last 11 games - four more than the next-best, Rennes and Marseille - and the only thing more amazing than the fact they are fourth after beating Puel's old side, Lille, last weekend is that earlier this season they took just nine points from ten games. According to the Nice squad, the turnaround is due to Puel himself as he rebuilds his reputation tarnished by three trophyless years at Lyon. "He's an experienced coach with broad shoulders. Even when it wasn't going well, he never lost his faith in us," centre-back Renato Civelli explained. "That gave us a calmness that we've not had in previous years. He has a more ambitious way of playing."
That very idea is ambitious in itself at a club that has recently been left scrambling for a foothold in the top flight. Perhaps Puel, whose tenure at Lyon ended sourly with him carrying the can for ending a run of seven successive L1 titles, figured he had little to lose in going down with a flourish at a club no-one expected much of anyway. However, those who witnessed his cleverly-crafted Lille sides trouble bigger outfits in the Champions League in the mid-noughties, may think Puel does actually know what he is doing.
"The idea is to move, play it on the ground and on the flanks, and get back in position when we lose possession. And to play to score goals, which is something new at Nice," said attacking midfielder Jeremy Pied, who moved from Lyon last summer. It does seem revolutionary and refreshing that the man who guided Monaco to the Ligue 1 title in 2000 places an emphasis on style ahead of results. With his team also the fourth-highest scorers in the top flight, he seems to have happily hit on a formula that provides both. Previously, fireworks had been exclusively the off-the-pitch reserve of the club's small and often over-boisterous following.
Grounded as ever, Puel has not lost sight of the reality of his club: that after the aesthetics comes survival, not silverware. "The first objective is our play. The second is to stay up, and we're not forgetting that Nice did that on the final day of the season in the last three," he explained after handing Lille their first defeat by a two-goal margin in more than two years. "We're not thinking about finishing in top five. That would only distract us, and we're still capable of having a poor run for two months."
The first ten games of the season lend substantial credence to Puel's claim, though there is no sign of his side being sucked into a 'what may be' daydream just yet. Valenciennes, a side who have dished out thumping defeats to Marseille and Lorient this season, were walloped 5-0 before Lille were disposed of, and Nice have - as their limited resources dictate - done all this on the equivalent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's monthly tattoo budget.
Jeremy Pied's opposite number on the left flank, Eric Bautheac, was cherry-picked from relegated Dijon and has proven his first Ligue 1 season, in which he more than cut the mustard, was no one-off. Pied has added pace and penetration down the right, and would have been joined by another Lyon player, France Under-21 international playmaker Clement Grenier, at the Stade du Ray had Yoann Gourcuff not suffered a knee injury in August. Forced to look elsewhere for a creative midfielder, Nice stumbled happily upon Valentin Esseyric, an outcast at Monaco. The 20-year-old celebrated Nice taking up the €1.5 million option on him six months early with a sublime strike against Valenciennes.
The bargain of them all, however, has been Dario Cvitanich. Purchased for €450,000 from Ajax, the Argentine reached double figures in league goals before Christmas - becoming the first Nice player since Loic Remy in 2009-10 to do so - and is only headed by Ibrahimovic in the Ligue 1 scoring charts. All this despite "not really being a goalscorer," according to Carlos Bianchi. "He's more complete, more thoughtful, more a killer," the former PSG striker said after seeing Cvitanich make strides forward during a season-long loan at Boca Juniors last term. "Without being a real number nine, he has that goalscoring instinct, which allows him to be in the right place at the right time."
Creativity and cutting edge do not win football matches alone, however, and Didier Digard, once of pre-Qatari PSG and Middlesbrough, does a handy line in midfield enforcing in front of a back four which, generous though they can be at times, has generally done enough - along with Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina - to give their side's attacking elements something to build on.
More than that, though, is the influence of Puel himself, and not only in making the team attractive to watch. The coach, a defensive midfielder in his playing days, received a black eye in training after challenging for a ball with rugged Serbian centre-back Nemanja Pejcinovic, though it could just as easily have been the player emerging second-best. Puel has - as the French say - instilled 'la culture de la gagne', literally 'the culture of winning', a concept previously unheard of at the Stade du Ray. When Pied said recently, "we go looking for victory everywhere", he did not mean it in the desperate manner in which a Nice player would have said the phrase in the recent past.
Puel certainly takes his football very seriously. When playing for the Variety Club against a team made up of the Pope's Swiss guards, Puel revealed to a team-mate he had been to check up on his side's charity game opponents. "It's the team of God,'' he was told. "There is no God. We have to win," came the reply.
The Almighty perhaps exacted a measure of revenge by helping Ligue 1's most woeful side, Nancy, beat Nice in the Coupe de France on Wednesday. Acts of God are not usually covered by insurers, though they may well accept a hefty premium against loss of earnings. So, when Puel's men move into their new Allianz Riviera stadium, all 35,000-capacity of it, early next season, they should at least have a safety net against a dip in form. If they keep playing as they are now, however, they won't need it.