Last season, OGC Nice outperformed all expectations to finish fourth in Ligue 1.
But over the summer, hopes of repeating such success seemed to fade when they lost manager Claude Puel to Southampton and star player Hatem Ben Arfa joined champions Paris Saint Germain on a free transfer.
However, Les Aiglons, under the tutelage of former Borussia Monchengladbach manager Lucien Favre, are once again flying high.
After 11 league games, Nice sit top of the pile, a full six points clear of AS Monaco and PSG and still undefeated.
Here are the key players behind Nice’s remarkable rise to become Ligue 1 title contenders this season.
Italian striker Mario Balotelli was picked up from Liverpool on a free transfer this summer. The former Manchester City and AC Milan star has been as inconsistent as he is enigmatic throughout his career, and after a disappointing spell at Anfield, his move to the Allianz Riviera was seen as a backwards step.
But, credit to Balotelli, he appears to have humbly knuckled down and focused on his performances on the field in France.
Favre has been key in helping the gifted 26-year-old realise his potential on the Côte d’Azur this season, utilising him sparingly and allowing him the freedom to fully express himself.
And Balotelli has rewarded his manager’s faith with seven goals in seven appearances.
Alassane Pléa is a product of the famous Lyon youth academy. The 23-year-old was unable to crack the first-team with l’OL and joined Nice in 2014 after a season on loan with Auxerre.
This season, Pléa has already scored more goals than in any other campaign in his career, despite being only 11 games in. The speedy attacker demonstrated how he has vastly improved his finishing technique by clinically netting a hat-trick against Metz last month, taking his tally for the season to seven.
Pléa has one under-21 appearance under his belt for France and if his current form continues, he’ll be a contender for a call-up to Les Bleus’ senior side, where manager Didier Deschamps will benefit from his ability to play on the right wing or centrally as a striker as much as Nice have this term.
Moroccan international Younés Belhanda is on loan at Nice for the season from Dynamo Kyiv.
The 26-year-old forward was born in France and even represented Les Bleus as under-20 level, before deciding to pledge his allegiance to the country of his parents’ birth.
A skilful attacker capable of playing wide or as a second striker, Belhanda has the ability to unlock the sternest of defences with his flamboyant footwork and eye for a killer pass.
Though not a prolific goal-scorer – he has found the net just once so far this season – Belhanda has contributed three assists and created 12 chances in his eight Ligue 1 games for Nice.
Attacking midfielder Wylan Cyprien has already bagged five goals and registered two assists so far this season.
Cyprien’s energy, drive and shooting technique has made him a real threat when arriving from deep into attacking zones. In addition to his goal-scoring prowess and creativity, the 21-year-old is also responsible in possession, averaging a Ligue 1 pass completion rate of 88.5 percent.
Nice signed the Guadeloupe-born France under-19 international from Lens this summer and the youngster has already marked himself out as one of the hottest prospects in France.
Jean Michaël Seri
Ivory Coast international Jean Michaël Seri is Nice’s all-round midfield maestro.
Despite standing at just 5ft 5ins, Seri is physically strong and unafraid to engage opposition midfielders in duels, with a 46 percent success rate.
Seri has also completed 73 percent of his dribbles this season. One of the key reasons behind his ability to beat an opponent one-on-one is his phenomenal first touch. The 25-year-old is able to do more with one touch of the ball than most players would even think of attempting with two. When receiving a pass, Seri is able to shield the ball and bring it under his spell while simultaneously drifting past his marker.
But Serie’s skills really come to the fore when analysing his creativity. The former Paços Ferreira midfielder has laid on an incredible six assists so far this season while also contributing one goal. And despite his propensity to play ambitious vertical passes, he still manages to maintain a 90 percent pass completion rate.
Former Bordeaux centre-back Paul Baysse is Nice’s captain and on-field leader.
The 28-year-old defender moved to the Allianz Riviera permanently this summer after a successful loan spell from St. Etienne last season.
Baysse uses his experience to great effect at the heart of the Nice defence. His anticipation has seen him average 7.4 clearances and make 2.1 interceptions per game this term.
The Talence-born player has shown his versatility this season by adapting to play in Favre’s back three system, while being equally as comfortable when the Ligue 1 side have switched to a back four. It is testament to his leadership skills that he has remained as Nice’s chief defensive organiser despite the signing of the more experienced Danté in the summer.
Baysse is also unafraid to resort to the dark arts to gain an advantage. When Lyon visited the Allianz Riviera last month, the Nice skipper successfully wound up l’OM star Nabil Fekir to the point that the France forward retaliated and got himself sent off. Nice went on to win 2-0.
About the author – Ryan Baldi
Ryan is a Midland’s based freelance sports writer specialising in European football. He has been fascinated with the continental game ever since he was presented with his first football kit at the age of 7 whilst on holiday in Spain – a Barcelona shirt with ‘Romario 10’ on the back. A contributor to numerous footballing websites, Ryan has also covered martial arts for local and national print publications.