Cologne 2-2 Nice
After an intense game and a breathless end to the evening, OGC Nice shared the spoils with FC Köln in a 2-2 draw on the final matchday of the UEFA Europa Conference League group stage. With Partizan Belgrade having been held to a 1-1 draw by Slovácko, Les Aiglons finish top of Group and qualify directly for the competition’s round of 16.
What emotion, what intensity and what a night! In a match that started off evenly, with both teams enjoying spells of momentum, Nice were put under the cosh for a good half-hour towards the end but held on with bravery, strength and self-sacrifice. Carried by a Kasper Schmeichel in fine form as well as a constant sense of togetherness, Les Rouge et Noir’s European tour will continue into March 2023 and into the last 16, to be precise, thanks to both a favourable result in Belgrade and a favourable head-to-head record with the Serbian side (a draw and a win for Le Gym).
At a sold-out RheinEnergieStadion with over 50,000 fans in attendance, including 600 hardy Nice souls, Le Gym started the game on the front foot. Set up in a 4-4-2 formation with Billal Brahimi on the left wing and Hicham Boudaoui as the free man on the right, Les Aiglons had Schmeichel to thank early on for a double save to deny Sargis Adamyan.
In a finely balanced first half, both teams caused problems for each other, but on a pitch made greasy by the heavy rainfall, Nice turned the game on its head in the space of three minutes, with Brahimi contributing to both goals. The Algerian, who was making his third successive start, worked wonders with the play in front of him, making a huge difference with his speed, his ability to take people on and his devastating sidesteps. In the 40th minute, he followed up a quick overlap with a dangerous cross towards the penalty spot – the same area of the pitch as for Nicolas Pepe’s opener against Partizan. This time, though, after Boudaoui’s hurried attempt was block, Gaëtan Laborde got the job done at the second attempt. When his right-footed tackle-come-shot was also blocked, the former Rennes man got up, beat his man and finished off with his left to get his third goal for Le Gym and his second in consecutive games, having also scored in the 1-0 win over Lorient.
Having set up the first goal, Brahimi then got himself involved in finishing the second. After the ball was won back high up the pitch, Youcef Atal’s magnificent pass found the former Angers player, who still had a player to beat in the opposition box. Brahimi then faked to accelerate before smartly tucking the ball between Kingsley Schindler’s legs to double his side’s lead.
LE GYM bend but don’t break
Sadly, their two-goal lead wouldn’t last long after the restart. Following a string of impressive saves in the first half, Schmeichel had no chance of stopping a powerful Denis Huseinbašić shot between his legs in the 48th minute, nor a close-range strike from Ondrej Duda 12 minutes later. With Köln having done the hard part with half an hour left to play, things weren’t looking good. Le Gym were lacking precision in their passing, were backing off and even looked to have snapped when the ball was again in their own net a minute after the equaliser, but the goal was eventually and completely justifiably ruled out for offside.
Le Gym didn’t break, however, thanks in large part to a heroic centre-back partnership of Dante and Jean-Clair Todibo, as well as an ever-present goalkeeper. Lucien Favre would then bring on some fresh legs in the form of Jordan Lotomba, Sofiane Diop and Aaron Ramsey, switching to a 4-5-1: Boudaoui and Ramsey ahead of Lemina; Pepe and Diop on the wings; and Laborde up front. The substitutes would give the team a new lease of life, and the storm eventually passed. Nice were now back in the ascendancy and could have even retaken the lead in the 86th minute if Pepe had been able to beat Marvin Schwäbe after receiving a fine pass from Ramsey. Having spent a lot of energy early on in the second half, Die Geißböcke looked leggy towards the end. Despite facing a myriad of long balls, Les Aiglons gave away very few clear-cut chances and, after five minutes of stoppage time, were able to celebrate at the final whistle.
Nice will play in the last 16 of a European competition in March – a new challenge and a new adventure!