Mario Balotelli’s move from Liverpool to Nice in the summer could well turn out to be the best thing he has ever done for his career.
The 26-year-old striker had seen his career stagnate after a couple of years of underachievement, firstly at Anfield and last season on loan at previous club AC Milan.
Facing exile at Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp and with a shortage of high-profile clubs willing to take him, Balotelli made the decision to take a perceived step down to Ligue 1 side Nice, who finished fourth last season but had since lost manager Claude Puel and star player Hatem Ben Arfa.
However, the move has so far proven to be hugely beneficial for all parties – Nice are unbeaten and six points clear at the top of Ligue 1 under new manager Lucien Favre, and Balotelli has scored six goals in five games in the league (seven in seven in all competitions).
To put Balotelli’s resurgence into context, seven goals is the same figure he had scored in the 51 games previously at Liverpool and Milan in all competitions.
But it’s not just the goal tally where Balotelli has shown great improvement. The striker has, as per Whoscored.com, improved his shots per game record considerably this season (4.4 p/g as opposed to 2.2 last season and 3.5 at Liverpool), and though the murmurings have been soft so far, there is the very real possibility that Balotelli could fill take the mantle of best striker in the league, left vacant by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s summer departure to the Premier League.
His pass completion is slightly ahead from last season (75% compared to 73%), and his shot accuracy has more than doubled (86% up from 40%). This suggests a more focused Balotelli, thinking about shots and passes rather than his aimless former self.
Favre has been keen to downplay the Italian international’s impact on Nice and Ligue 1, understandably given the historical hyperbole that followed the player down for his entire career, but with each passing week it is harder to keep a lid on expectations.
He is not quite there yet maturity-wise, as evidenced by receiving two yellow cards within a few minutes of each other against Lorient earlier this month, but Favre does appear to be affording him the patience that the likes of Brendan Rodgers and Sinisa Mihajlovic could not, and Klopp had no interest in entertaining, in an effort to finally help Balotelli reach his potential.
Nice’s unlikely title challenge is being spearheaded by an unlikely hero – and long may it continue.