Nice coach Lucien Favre has told UEFA.com that Mario Balotelli has made great progress during his time at the club.
After making a surprise switch to relaunch his career at Nice in 2016 after he had struggled at Liverpool, Balotelli enjoyed an impressive maiden season in France, tallying a career-best 15 goals from just 20 Ligue 1 starts.
The Italy international had been widely expected to leave after 12 months at the Allianz Riviera, but instead extended his stay and has found the net five times in as many league games this term.
Favre criticised his striker for what he described as “a negative performance” as Nice were beaten in the Champions League playoff by Napoli earlier this season, but is now a lot happier with him than when he first joined the club.
“He does certain things better than at the start. Mario needs support, needs us to speak to him. He needs players close to him because he reads the game well and knows how to make a difference,” said Favre, who had previously claimed the temperamental forward was “not difficult” to manage.
“He has really improved in his movement. He’s becoming more altruistic and effective. He still has a lot of work to do, but we know what that is. He works hard in training, he presses when he has lost the ball. It’s a little step forward, but it’s an important one.
“But it’s not going to be put in place in a year. He needs time. I was already pleasantly surprised by his progress last year, and now he’s even more involved in play. He is making a big effort to reach the level required.”
Balotelli’s arrival, last season’s third-placed finish and a maiden qualification for the Champions League have all contributed to making Nice more of a footballing force. Balotelli was joined by former Inter Milan teammate Wesley Sneijder in the summer, and the club opened a new state-of-the-art training centre earlier this month.
Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivere was instrumental in Balotelli’s arrival and the upswing in the club’s fortunes and standing.
He told Gazzetta dello Sport of his delight at his coup in bringing such a player to the club, and sent a positive message to Italy coach Giam Piero Ventura, who has resisted calls to bring Balotelli back into the Azzurri squad.
“Balotelli cost Liverpool €26 million and we got him for nothing, after long negotiations and having convinced [agent Mino] Raiola to let me meet him,” he said. “You need cunning and luck, like with [Hatem] Ben Arfa, Dante and Sneijder.
“When I met Mario, we spoke for four hours. I convinced him by telling him that he would rediscover the essence of football and his smile with us. That’s what happened, and I’m pleased.
“If you are talented, you don’t lose it and I know that he’s working hard for the World Cup. I don’t know Ventura, but I would call him to guarantee him that Mario is really a great lad who brings joy to the dressing room. I’ve never seen any [misbehaviour].
“It’s still soon to say [if he will renew his contract]. I said in June that even his mother thought that Nice was the right place for him. And Favre is an ideal coach to improve him. But to afford players like him, we need to be certain of playing in Europe.”
Nice welcome Lazio to the Allianz Riviera in the Europa League on Thursday.