Preview : FC Schalke v OGC Nice – Europa League

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Ah, Nice. Still top of Ligue 1 after a 1-0 away win at Saint-Etienne at the weekend, albeit no longer unbeaten after losing by the same margin at Caen the game before. Consistently exciting and inventive, they are a joy to watch. And so far, absolutely terrible in Europe.

Nice sit bottom of the group with a solitary win (1-0 away at Salzburg) to their name, and a -5 goal difference due in large part to being taken apart 5-2 by FK Krasnodar, and losing 2-0 at home to Salzburg in the last round. And the auguries for their next match are not good as they take on group leaders Schalke who have won four of four, most recently 2-0 against FKK.

Missing will be Mario Balotelli, who has picked up a knock in training, but maybe more crucial will be the continued injury to Paul Baysse, whose absence at the weekend meant that Nice again played a 4-3-3 rather than the 3-5-2 that got them to the top of the table. This means that Malang Sarr is all on his own partnering Dante, which is a big ask of a 17-year-old.

An obvious explanation of their different form would be that Lucien Favre has other things on his mind, and is picking his team accordingly, but this doesn’t quite satisfy; looking at the most-used eleven in terms of minutes played, ten players are the same across both competitions – Vincent Koziello is getting more a run in the Europa League whereas Younes Belhanda is marginally ahead in terms of proportional Ligue 1 minutes. And the average age of that ‘starting XI’ is actually lower in Ligue 1 (23 years 7 months vs 24 years 2 months).

So, what is it? A sense that this is the secondary competition so everyone takes their feet off the gas? Again, that would be understandable – when Guingamp gave the Europa League a good go in 2014/15 it was all they were going for, they could afford to give it their all. Nice have had their eyes on a bigger prize, and it seems to be telling.

Schalke, meanwhile, are mid-table in the Bundesliga, albeit unbeaten in six games to get up that high after a horrendous start that saw them lose their first five league games. So, their focus might have shifted slightly, but they can’t be caught at the top of the group. Thus, there seems little point in going great guns in this competition when they have other things to think about as it won’t make much difference except for pride. That could be Nice’s saving grace, and they have to win to stand any chance of progressing.

However – there’s a midweek round coming up in Ligue 1 and the Coupe de la Ligue and the last group game and then fitting in game 19 before the treve so Nice have nine matches in the next 27 days, so…don’t expect the whirlwind. Expect cautious man-management from Favre, hoping for a goal on the break to keep their chances alive.

Nice : Cardinale, Benitez – Souquet, Ricardo, Boscagli, Dalbert, Dante, Sarr, Burner – Seri, Lusamba, Walter, Bodmer, Cyprien, Koziello, Marcel – Belhanda, Eysseric, Plea, Donis.

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