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By I. Holyman

OGC Nice will attempt to press their claims for a top-five finish and compound AS Saint-Etienne’s miserable period when the pair meet at the Allianz Riviera on Sunday.

 OGC Nice – AS Saint-Etienne  

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A seven-game unbeaten run has propelled Nice from third-from-bottom of the table to sixth, just three points off the top five, in a dizzying two-month spell. They head into Week 22 within touching distance of FC Nantes, the team directly ahead of them, and could have been closer still to Claudio Ranieri’s side.

But for Radamel Falcao’s late equaliser in Tuesday’s Côte d’Azur derby in Monaco, Lucien Favre’s men would have had two points more on their tally, though they were also helped by Toulouse FC’s added-time leveller against Nantes 24 hours later.

Mario Balotelli’s brace at the Stade Louis II had looked like giving Nice swift revenge over their neighbours for the Coupe de la Ligue quarter-final defeat they had suffered to Leonardo Jardim’s men just a week earlier, and it was a source of frustration not to leave the principality with all three points.

WATCH: Nice forced to settle for share of derby spoils

“It’s worse than a defeat for us. We were really determined to win this game, we really put in everything to do that,” grumbled Nice forward Allan Saint-Maximin, who set up Balotelli’s opening goal that pulled his side level against the team he left last summer to join Nice.

“We did everything to get back into it, we did that and we managed to score another to go in front. To concede an equaliser like that, at the end of the game when there are only two minutes left, is disappointing.

“But we’ll go forward, what we showed against Monaco augurs well for the future. We have sent out a message: we’re here to be counted on. We’re going to try and show that again this weekend against Saint-Etienne.”

Favre: ‘Mario is a lot better’

Balotelli will be the main threat to Les Verts, should he play. The Italy forward, who is in his second season in Ligue 1 Conforama following his summer 2016 move from Liverpool, has often been used sparingly by Favre. He has made just 13 starts this season, but has proven devastatingly clinical, racking up 12 goals already, just three short of the tally he achieved in his entire maiden campaign in France.

“Mario is playing a lot better than last season,” said Favre. “This was his first start since the game against Bordeaux in mid-December, and he scored in that game too, Mario is coming back from very very far given how he has performed in recent years. He’s still a work in progress. But his improvement can continue, that’s great.

“It’s up to him to help himself and for us to help him. He is putting in the effort, and I think he could do more in getting himself away from his markers. Mario will never be a player who’ll run back 60 metres to defend, but that’s not what we ask of him over 90 minutes.”

Gasset: ‘Not desperate’

Saint-Etienne had found themselves in Nice’s position in mid-October after a quietly impressive start under Oscar Garcia. However, the Spanish tactician has since departed, and the ten-time French champions have picked up just six points in a catastrophic 12-game run that has seen them freefall down the table, leaving them just two points above the promotion/relegation play-off place ahead of Week 22.

Though the January signings of France internationals Yann M’Vila and Paul-Georges Ntep, as well as the early return of forward Robert Beric from a loan spell at Anderlecht, will reinforce the squad, form is proving desperately elusive while they have failed to win and failed to score on their last three visits to Nice, losing twice.

WATCH: Metz maul Saint-Etienne

The optimism provoked by the Week 20 win over Toulouse – their first victory in three months – was emphatically torn apart by the 3-0 defeat to bottom side FC Metz with the salt being rubbed into the wound by Emmanuel Rivière and Nolan Roux, two former Saint-Etienne players who both got on the scoresheet.

“We can’t quite say it’s desperate,” said boss Jean-Louis Gasset, who also saw Hernani sent off late on for two bookings inside three minutes. “We didn’t perform today, we gifted them goals and didn’t bounce back. We know it takes a lot of time to get everyone on the right track. We’re going to forget this performance quickly as there is little that was positive.”

Probable teams

Nice: to follow

Saint-Etienne: to follow

>> PRE-MATCH STATS: Nice vs. Saint-Etienne


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