Le Gym takes control (2-1)
It was a great European night at the Allianz Riviera on Thursday, and Nice were in great form as they dominated a tense match against Partizan Belgrade (2-1). Le Gym took the lead on the half-hour mark thanks to a goal from Pépé only to concede an equaliser 15 minutes from time - but then snatched a deserved victory with a goal from the excellent Mario Lemina. They are now top of Group D.
You had to be there on the Plaine du Var on this European evening. For many reasons, which encompass the heart, the head and the gut. You had to be there, also and simply, because this match between Nice and Partizan was a spectacular show and in the end, our Aiglons took all three points and went level with the Serbs on eight points - but took top spot on goal difference. This result could be worth a lot of money when it comes down to it, but not before the other game in the group, between Solvácko and Cologne, is replayed on Friday afternoon following heavy fog in the Czech Republic.
In the match, Lucien Favre made three changes to to the team that played in the first leg in September, but kept the same formation that had made it difficult for the visitors: a 4-4-2 with the Laborde - Pépé duo up front. The three changes in question: Bulka in goals, Bard on the left of the defence and Brahimi in front of him. For his second start of the season, the n°14 turned in a great performance full of movement, discipline, energy and impact. It was he who unleashed a good cross that landed in the box on the half-hour mark. Laborde forced a fierce duel with Vujacic, the ball trailed and Pépé, who had started the move, opened up his right foot to put Le Gym in the lead. And in the process, he scored his fifth goal in 14 matches with Nice (1-0, 29').
This opening goal was deserved, as Lucien Favre's men had smothered their opponents with effective pressure, regardless of the area of the pitch, and stayed tight at all times. Partizan proceeded on the counter-attack and had two opportunities in the first half. On the first, Bulka quickly got down to push away a cross-shot from Ricardo Gomes (16'). On the second, Menig tried to curl a right-footed shot in from just outside the box, but missed (20'). The two chances proved that Partizan, second in the league, would always be able to create a threat if Nice couldn't manage to kill the match off.
Despite their clear domination, Le Gym had few real chances before the break. However, their best chance fell for Gaëtan Laborde, who was exemplary all night in terms of his self-sacrifice and courage - but not in his finishing - looked to tackle a Pepe cross into the goal (39'), but Popovic saved.
Over and above
The match was not over, however, and Laborde went close again as he hit the post early in the second half - after Brahimi had broken through and produced a wicked shot on the turn (47'). Le Gym continued to push in their bid for a winner and dominated possession. But Lemina missed the target with a long-range shot (48') and Bard found Popovic's gloves with a half-volley on the edge of the area (58').
Gordan Petric made a number of changes to try to turn the tide. Le Gym began to take their foot off the gas and Partizan quickly got back into the game, with a goal by Gomes that Bulka could do nothing to prevent (1-1, 74'). It was a cruel and unjust equaliser that awoke the ghosts of the Slovácko match... but the Nice fans and Mario Lemina put them back to sleep within two minutes. Les Rouge et Noir, with their pride stung and a magnificent crowd urging them on, set off once more, and the great Mario went over and above the call. The Gabonese international was played into the area by Thuram, and in a move typical of a strong ball-winner, he hooked it onto his to his right boot and unleashed a powerful shot that Belic could only deflect past Popovic and into the net (2-1, 77').
In the last quarter of an hour, Le Gym did not suffer overly, but tension reigned on the Plaine du Var. Coach Favre launched Beka Beka, Mendy and Viti, going to three at the back. Nice continued to push forward but Partizan attacked, and the Allianz Riviera held its breath when Antoine Mendy was caught out in the box. Fortunately, the referee flagged for offside and Les Aiglons sealed a fine win.
However, Le Gym are not yet qualified for the next round. They will have to continue their efforts in Cologne next Thursday, after a trip to Lorient this Sunday (Round 13, kick-off 5.05pm).
The group's other match, between FC Slovacko and FC Cologne, initially scheduled for 18:45, eventually started at the delayed time of 20:00 due to fog. In the end, the match was called off after a few minutes and has been rescheduled for this Friday at 13:00.
Whatever happens, Le Gym will be on top of the group at the end of Matchday 5.