Paris Saint-Germain v Nice: Champions hunting down shock leaders
UNPREDICTABLE LIGUE 1 TITLE RACE HOTS UP AS CHAMPIONS HOST LEADERS
Few could have predicted how the Ligue 1 season would pan out for Paris Saint-Germain and surprise-package Nice before the start of the season.
PSG, once more heavily bankrolled by their wealthy Qatari owners, may have lost all-time leading goalscorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but in Edinson Cavani they had a ready-made star in place to fill his hefty void, while losing David Luiz was offset by keeping hold of the in-demand Marquinhos and a more prominent role for youth-academy graduate Presnel Kimpembe.
The additions of Hatem Ben Arfa, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Jese Rodriguez only added further credence to the argument that PSG would dominate domestically again and with a fifth straight league title.
By contrast, Nice had to deal with losing Ben Arfa - who scored an impressive 17 goals in 34 league outings to help the team to fourth last season - and many expected a season of struggle for Lucien Favre's men.
However, thus far the script has not been followed in France's top flight.
Unai Emery was drafted in to replace Laurent Blanc at PSG to try and improve the club's fortunes in the Champions League following his exploits with Sevilla in the Europa League.
But PSG have yet to hit top form under Emery. They have lost three of their opening 16 league matches, more than in the entirety of last season, and dropped points on two other occasions.
Nice, meanwhile, upset the odds from the off thanks in part to their shrewd work in the transfer market.
Mario Balotelli was plucked on a free transfer from Liverpool and the Italy international has six goals in as many league appearances, with injuries denying him the chance of an even better return.
Younes Belhanda, signed on loan from Dynamo Kiev, is also enjoying somewhat of a renaissance having seen his career stall in recent seasons.
A 1-0 loss at Caen last month threatened to derail their progress, but Favre's men responded with three wins and a draw from their past four league matches.
The surprise league leaders consequently travel to the Parc des Princes two places and four points better off than PSG.
Nice are enjoying their best start to a league campaign and another upset in the capital will see them put a seven-point gap between the teams, with second-place Monaco also in title contention.
THE NUMBERS GAME
PSG's defence has proven particularly stoic at the Parc des Princes this season, but they face a tough task to keep Nice's frontline quiet on Sunday.
Nice have failed to find the net just once in the top flight this term. With Balotelli set to feature having returned from injury in the Europa League on Thursday and Alassane Plea in sublime form, the visitors will fancy their chances.
- PSG have kept a clean sheet in 10 of their last 11 home games in Ligue 1.
- Nice have scored in 17 of their last 18 games in Ligue 1.
- Balotelli has a conversion rate of 38.46 per cent and has scored six times, missing three big chances this term.
- Plea has been involved in three of Nice’s last five goals in Ligue 1 (two goals, one assist).
- Edinson Cavani has scored 14 goals in Ligue 1 in 2016-17, only Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored more in the big five leagues this season (15).
- Despite topping the Ligue 1 goal scoring charts, Cavani has already missed 14 big chances, more than any other player in Ligue 1.
"We were lacking efficiency in the draw with Ludogorets.
"We made some mistakes and that cost us. We are going to talk about what went wrong.
"We did not concede a lot of goals until the loss versus Montpellier. We have lost that defensive strength a bit, but we get the chance to find it back against Nice.
"I also saw plenty of reasons for optimism from our Champions League campaign."
"It was Mario [Balotelli]'s first game back against Krasnodar on Thursday.
"He had pain in both calves at half-time. But it does not look like anything too serious, it was just fatigue. We had planned on subbing him off. Sunday at the Parc des Princes? I do not yet know what my starting line-up will be.
"What is important is to maintain our balance. We have to solely focus on this game. We go into each game with the intention to win.
"On the long term it will be difficult to rival PSG, but this could be a chance for us. They have a new coach and they need time."