Nice's run to fourth place made them the surprise package in Ligue 1 last season and now, having kept hold of most of their leading players over the summer and moved into their impressive new stadium, Claude Puel's men suggested in Friday's win against Marseille that a repeat performance is not beyond them.
Just as in other parts of the Mediterranean, there is a genuine passion for football in Nice, but the port city's only leading club have needed the influence of Puel and the boost provided by their state-of-the-art new home to turn them into a force to be reckoned with once again.
Last season was their best since 1976, but the defeat to Apollon Limassol in the Europa League play-offs at the start of this campaign was a huge blow. Nevertheless, last month marked the true beginning of a new era. On September 22, after more than 80 years at the crumbling Stade du Ray, Nice inaugurated the 35,000-capacity Allianz Riviera ground with a 4-0 win against Valenciennes. They have since beaten Guingamp and now Marseille there. Three games played, three wins, and no goals conceded. That form has left Les Aiglons flying high, just three points adrift of Lille in third.
On Friday, a sell-out crowd watched Nice beat OM. The club said they could have filled the ground twice over, while tickets were reportedly going for up to €200 euros (£169) on the black market. The lucky ones who got in saw Dario Cvitanich score the only goal of the game before half-time, but the real hero was goalkeeper David Ospina.
The Colombian only returned from World Cup qualifying duty with his country on the other side of the Atlantic on Thursday afternoon. Little over 24 hours later, having been too tired to train, he made countless interventions in the second half to condemn Marseille to a third straight defeat. However, he insisted that the atmosphere generated by the stadium was what truly made the difference.
"Three matches in this stadium, three victories, of course we are all hoping it continues," said Ospina.
"The Stade du Ray had so much history but this new stadium is really magnificent, we need to make the most of it."
So far they are doing that, although Puel's role in turning the team around cannot be understated. His failure to win a trophy during a three-year stint in charge of Lyon, despite spending well over €150 million in the transfer market, left a black mark on his CV, but now the 52-year-old is showing that he doesn't need such financial backing to build a competitive side.
Of the team that started against Marseille, seven were Puel signings, but they cost less than €4 million put together. Cvitanich has been an inspired buy, the Argentine following up last season's 19 goals by netting six already this time around, including Friday's winner. There were inaccurate reports during the close season that Cvitanich wanted out and instead his compatriot, central defender Renato Civelli, was the only key player to leave before getting the chance to experience the new stadium.
"A new ground brings new ambitions," sums up Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivère. "Neither me nor Claude Puel, nor some of the players, would have come to the club without the prospect of the new stadium."
Recent events make it tempting to wonder what Lyon fans would make of Rivère's comments and of Puel's ongoing success on the Riviera. Puel left OL under a cloud in 2011, but his successor Rémi Garde is having difficulty keeping the financially-troubled outfit competitive.
Lyon recently announced losses of €20 million for the year to June 2013. Without Champions League football for a second straight season and with their own much-vaunted new stadium - costing more than €400 million - not ready for another two years, OL are unable to really move forward off the field and that has led to worrying results on the pitch.
OL have won just once in 12 matches in all competitions and Sunday's 1-1 draw with Bordeaux left them in 11th place in the Ligue 1 table. Jean-Michel Aulas, the Lyon president, probably does not wish he had Puel back, but while he waits impatiently for his new Stade des Lumières to see the light of day, he will be well aware that Nice are a club on the up. In contrast, Lyon, the former powerhouse of the French game, continue their on-pitch decline.
- Sports & Recreation
- Claude Puel