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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Balotelli and Sneijder, maverick and pass-master, hoping to rekindle magic and take Nice into Uefa Champions League for first time

French side trail Napoli 2-0 from first leg in Italy. 

Nice's Italian forward Mario Balotelli, left, and Dutch midfielder midfielder Wesley Sneijder during the Ligue 1 match against Guingamp on August 19, 2017 at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice, southeastern France.Valery Hache / AFP
Nice's Italian forward Mario Balotelli, left, and Dutch midfielder midfielder Wesley Sneijder during the Ligue 1 match against Guingamp on August 19, 2017 at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice, southeastern France.Valery Hache / AFP

Their partnership has been resumed for just 10 minutes so far, the length of time Mario Balotelli, on as a second-half substitute for Nice in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Guingamp, coincided with Wesley Sneijder, who made his debut in France’s Ligue 1. They each showed enough to have lifted hopes on the Cote D’Azur that a great comeback might be achieved on Tuesday against Napoli.

Nice, aiming for a place in the Uefa Champions League group phase for the first time, trail the Italians 2-0 from last week’s away leg of the play-off. Neither Balotelli nor Sneijder, the two stars, were fit enough for that trip and by the end of it, Nice had further strains on their personnel, after striker Alassane Plea and midfielder Vincent Koziello had been sent off. Lucien Favre, the manager, would have been obliged to bring in his stellar duo even if he wasn’t already planning it.

Balotelli and Sneijder, maverick and pass-master, won a European Cup together in 2010 as teammates at Inter Milan, when Balotelli was still a teenage prodigy and Sneijder was delivering on the great expectations that he had shouldered since he was a teenage prodigy in the Netherlands. It was the year of Inter’s treble, Sneijder a key actor in the triumph and a World Cup finalist the same summer; it was the year when Balotelli gave off the first signs of trouble. Though he contributed goals and moments of brilliance, he also tried the patience of Inter’s manager Jose Mourinho.

The rest is a long, colourful history that has criss-crossed English football, two spells at AC Milan and reached a high point last season at Nice, where Balotelli, focus of attention, helped guide the French club to third place in Ligue 1, scoring 15 goals.

His success and above all his signals of consistent commitment endorsed the club’s reputation as a happy home for the game’s non-conformists. The gifted Hatem Ben Arfa, unsettled at various clubs during his patchwork career, had thrived at Nice in 2015/16 and when Ben Arfa moved on to Paris Saint-Germain – an unhappy move – Balotelli, released by Liverpool, slotted into the role of charismatic crowd-pleaser with elan.

Sneijder is no maverick. But he is an individualist, with a firm idea of how his skills, his eye for a pass, should be utilised, and of his status. He became the most capped player in the history of the Netherlands on his 33rd birthday in June. He wants to celebrate his 34th at his fourth World Cup. That, as Favre explained, was part of the motivation for joining Nice, after four and half years with Galatasaray.

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“Wesley had been thinking about continuing his career in America or China,” said Nice’s Swiss manager. “He was told it would be better for his World Cup chances if he stayed in Europe. That was perfect for us.”

Sneijder watched Nice, with Balotelli on the scoresheet, knock Ajax - where he began his career - out in the previous qualifying round of the Champions League, convincing him this was a club he would like to play for. “It’s not as if I didn’t know about Nice before that but I can see they play nice football and with a system that appeals to me.”

Sneijder, who has won titles at Ajax, Inter, Real Madrid and in Turkey, has been given the club’s No 10 jersey by colleague Mikael Le Bihan, a gesture he appreciated. Sneijder cherishes the No 10 like a second-skin for what it signifies about the sort of creative football he plays.

At his best, the diminutive Sneijder can command contests from his space behind the forward line. “As I get older, I fell better and better,” he promised Nice supporters.

The idea of Sniejder supplying the powerful Balotelli with precise through-balls and pinpoint crosses is seductive. The notion they will both furiously press and harry opponents for 90 breathless minutes may be far-fetched.

And here is an intriguing question: who bows to whom when it comes to direct free kicks? Both have a special knack with a dead ball. Napoli will be aware of that, and wise to the match-winning capabilities of the two main men ready to remind Europe that Paris is not French football’s only magnet for stars.