For Lucien Favre and Nice it seems that nothing can go right at the moment. This was showcased in the first leg of their tie against Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow. Nice stormed into a 2-0 lead thanks to a brace from Mario Balotelli after an impressive first half and seemed to have the game firmly in their control. That was until Portuguese midfielder Manuel Fernandes delivered a hugely impressive individual performance, aided by some horrific Nice defending, and scored a hatrick to put Lokomotiv Moscow in a commanding position entering the second leg.
Lucien Favre must have been enraged by the way his side capitulated defensively. While there was more than a hint of bad luck involved in some of the goals, they followed the pattern of Nice’s season, which has been an inability to be defensively solid. Malang Sarr’s tackle, which led to a Lokomotiv penalty and their first goal, was rash and unnecessary and came at one of the worst times to concede in football: right before halftime. The sequence leading to Racine Coly’s red card and Fernandes’s goal from the resulting freekick came from Nice being hit on the counter after overcommitting up the field. While the red card decision may be considered harsh, it was the result of an avoidable mistake and these types of errors have haunted Nice this season.
Lokomotiv will be feeling extremely pleased with their first leg result and are now the overwhelming favorite to progress in front of their home fans barring an incredible performance by Nice which seems unlikely based on their current form.
Lokomotiv face no major injury problems and have a virtually first choice squad available. Club captain Vedran Corluka has recovered from a long term injury and was on the bench during the first leg, however,it seems unlikely that Yuri Semin will risk starting him considering his lack of match fitness.
Nice’s defensive options are severely limited with coach Lucien Favre only naming five defenders for the trip to Moscow. One of these players is 17 year old Andy Pelmard who has never made a professional appearance and another is 20 year old left back Romain Perraud who has played three minutes of professional football this season. This leaves Dante, Malang Sarr and Patrick Burner as the only senior defensive options. Because of this crisis, Favre may well be forced to convert a midfielder into a defensive slot. Further up the field Nice are unscathed and have no absences.
Lokomotiv Moscow – Manuel Fernandes:
The Portuguese midfielder has reinvigorated his career in Russia and received his first call up to the national team in five years in 2017. During this season Fernandes has become a candidate to be part of Portugal’s World Cup squad, something seemingly unthinkable a year ago.
He scored a hat-trick during the first leg (his second in the Europa League this season), but it was his overall performance that stood out. Nice simply could not contain him, and if he can repeat the same type of performance in Moscow then Nice’s chances of a comeback will vastly diminish. Nice will most likely throw numbers forward early in the game in attempt to unsettle the hosts and Fernandes’s experience and quality with the ball will be needed to slow the game down and keep possession
OGC Nice – Dante:
Nice’s captain is the only defender over the age of 21 in the squad and his big game experience will be absolutely vital in the hostile conditions. Russian ultras are notorious in football communities, and in addition the temperature will be near freezing. For Nice to have a chance of mounting a comeback they will need to throw numbers forward which will mean more space to counter attack for Lokomotiv. It will be Dante’s job to marshall the backline and eliminate these opportunities. An early Lokomotiv goal would be a sucker punch for Nice, and Dante will need to quickly calm the nerves of his young defensive partners.
I expect Nice to throw numbers forward, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they score an early goal to make the tie interesting. However, I think their defensive issues are too big to ignore, and I expect an entertaining scoring draw that sees Lokomotiv show some nerves but ultimately progress into the Round of 16.
Prediction: Lokomotiv Moscow 2-2 OGC Nice