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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 March 2019

Mario Balotelli aims to prove a point to Patrick Vieira as Marseille face Nice

The Italian signed a short-term contract with OM after abrupt slump under the management of his former teammate Vieira at Nice

Patrick Vieira, three quarters of the way through his first season as a manager in Europe, reckons he has learnt a great deal in his time at Nice. “Society has changed,” he said ahead of the Ligue 1 south-coast derby on Sunday against Marseille, “and it’s up to me to adapt.”

Vieira was obliquely referring to a clash with his striker Allan Saint-Maximin over the player’s absence from the trip to Angers three weekends ago. Saint-Maximin reported sick; Vieira cast doubt, in public, about the gravity of the illness, and after a 3-0 defeat that set back Nice’s prospects of claiming a place in next season’s Europa League - or better - made clear his frustration.

It was not the first confrontation the young manager, 42, has had with a player under his charge. But Vieira has earned the authority to speak plainly.

His Nice find themselves four points off fourth place with 11 games left of the season and that shines a positive light on Vieira’s achievements in hard circumstances.

Nice went through significant executive-level changes during the campaign and they have struggled to score goals, in large part because for the opening four months, their most experienced and talented forward, one Mario Balotelli, was horribly out of form, and, in Vieira’s view, short of fitness.

All of which makes Sunday’s trip along the Mediterranean highly charged. The man of the moment at Marseille is … yes, one Mario Balotelli, transformed from the out-of-sorts Nice star of August to January, to the Midas-touch predator who in six matches - five as a starter - has struck four goals for his new club, the seventh of his hopscotch career.

Last summer, Vieira, already admired throughout France for his leadership as a World-Cup winning midfielder and a former national team captain, persuaded Balotelli, 28, to remain at Nice and reject overtures from Marseille. It looked like a triumph of man-management. Vieira and Balotelli used to be teammates, at Inter Milan in Italy and at Manchester City in England, so the Italian listened to Vieira.

Nice manager Patrick Vieira is hoping to guide the French club to a top-four finish in Ligue 1. AFP
Nice manager Patrick Vieira is hoping to guide the French club to a top-four finish in Ligue 1. AFP

But what followed was a long, wearying strain on the relationship. In 10 Ligue 1 games under Vieira, he scored no goals, and managed only two full 90 minutes, an abrupt slump from a forward who, in two-and-a-half years at Nice before Vieira arrived, appeared to have found his mojo, to the tune of 43 goals at better than one-every-two-games.

“Mario needed a fresh challenge,” Vieira concluded long before the winter transfer window opened and Balotelli leapt through it, released, to sign a six-month deal with Marseille.

Balotelli, being Balotelli, has made quite a spectacle of his success at the bigger, more boisterous club. Last weekend, in the win at home to Saint-Etienne, he followed up an athletic, airborne volleyed goal by borrowing a smartphone from a cameraman and inviting celebrating teammates to join him in a selfie. He has also, in the lead-up to Sunday’s game, posted on social media how much he misses Saint-Maximin, the 21-year with whom he struck up a rapport at Nice and who, it is widely reported, is on OM’s radar.

This is the sort of theatre Vieira may be thinking of when he talks of a "changing society". He will certainly want to steer away from the idea that the fixture is a judgement on his ability to coax the best out of Balotelli, or that there is a scent of revenge around it.

And Vieira will not be the only manager monitoring how Balotelli fares against Nice’s tight defence, the third meanest in Ligue 1. Word is that Roberto Mancini, who used to manage both Vieira and Balotelli at Inter and at City, will be at the Stade Velodrome in his capacity as head coach of Italy, specifically to see if Super Mario’s latest comeback demands his return to the Azzurri ranks, and ponder whether the hardships of managing him would be compensated by Balotelli's undoubted talent.

Updated: March 8, 2019 08:55 AM

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