The visit of Lyon to the Allianz Riviera was not the easiest of matches for Walter BenÃtez to keep his tenth clean sheet of the season, but Nice won 1-0 and he cemented his case for being the best keeper in France. Only five goalkeepers in Europeâs top five leagues have kept more clean sheets than BenÃtez this season â Alisson, Samir Handanovic, Ederson, Jan Oblak and Kepa. It has been an impressive campaign for the uncapped Argentinian, who joined Nice from Quilmes in 2016, but his performances should not surprise anyone who has kept an eye on Les Aiglons under Patrick Vieira.
This column has not been shy about criticising the former Arsenal midfielder as he tackles his first managerial job in Europe, especially earlier in the season, when he struggled with his man-management and tactical planning. Much has since been made of Vieiraâs switch to a back three early in the season, allowing Nice to play a style of possession football in which they sit very deep and wait patiently before trying to counter through the likes of Allan Saint-Maximin and Youcef Atal. Their attack is still a work in progress â Saint-Maximin is the only Nice player to have scored more than three league goals this season â but Nice now have as many points as fourth-placed Montpellier.
As well as switching to a back three after being thumped by Dijon in August, Vieira also made what was then the boldest move of his career: he dropped Yoan Cardinale for BenÃtez. Cardinale has been an erratic presence since he made his first-team debut in 2015 â he was dropped for a spell by Lucien Favre last season â but he is also an academy product who was integral in the clubâs title challenge in the 2016-17 season. As Vieiraâs handling of Mario Balotelli has subsequently shown, the manager is unafraid to make bold decisions, but at the time it seemed rather momentous.
Momentous and correct. Aside from their 4-0 thrashing at Lille earlier this month, Nice have been superb defensively in recent months. In the autumn, they even went six matches without conceding a goal. Their profligacy in attack meant they only won four of those games, but that string of results underscored just how important BenÃtez has become. No first-choice goalkeeper in the league averages more saves and no one else has recorded a streak of clean sheets as long as that run in November. That he has not been tipped for an international call-up or a move to a bigger club is surprising.
BenÃtez, who is both superb in the air and also a strong shot-stopper, freely admits that he plays with a chip on his shoulder, no surprise given that he name-checks Paraguay keeper JosÃ© Luis Chilavert as an inspiration. Having grown up in difficult financial circumstances in northern Argentina, BenÃtez had to work part-time while he was an academy player to be able to afford to train with Quilmes.
The patience and work ethic he forged in that tough environment have proven useful. When Kevin Trapp was linked with a loan move to Nice last summer, BenÃtez simply doubled down and vowed to impress Vieira on his own terms. There is something of a kinship, perhaps, between player and manager in this regard. Vieira, the child of immigrants, also had to deal with the disappointment of failing at Milan before going on to impress at Arsenal. He also knows how to persevere.
The 1-0 win over Lyon this weekend gave BenÃtezâs season a pleasing bit of symmetry. His first start was also against Lyon and that game also finished 1-0 to Nice, as he made nine saves in a shock win at the Parc OL. Things are far from smooth for Nice. Dante and Malang Sarr are prone to the odd gaffe at the back and the club are without a recognised striker for the remainder of the season. But in BenÃtez, Vieira may have found the perfect redoubt. Thierry Henryâs struggles with Monaco showed how difficult the step up to management can be for former players. Being blessed with a solid keeper will help Vieira on his way in Ligue 1.
Ligue 1 talking points
â¢ With Neymar injured, Edinson Cavani limping off against Bordeaux was close to catastrophic for Thomas Tuchel before PSGâs trip to Manchester on Tuesday. The 4-2-2-2 set-up used of late, which suits PSGâs stars players while allowing variation of approach, now needs an overhaul. Julian Draxlerâs sparkling form could have covered for Neymar but Tuchelâs system loses balance without Cavani. While Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting would keep the shape, his indecisive display on Saturday drew whistles from the crowd in Paris. Ãngel Di MarÃa could also be pushed forward on his return to Old Trafford but a more conservative 4-2-3-1 may win out; Dani Alves aiding Thilo Kehrer against Anthony Martial while Draxler helps police Paul Pogba. Whatever Tuchel decides, he remains hamstrung.
â¢ Niceâs victory this weekend helped a smattering of clubs who are fighting for European places. Although Lyon maintain a six-point advantage in third, fourth-place Montpellierâs draw with Monaco means they are one of four teams on 37 points. A 3-0 loss for Saint-Ãtienne, now fifth, at Rennes kept Julien StÃ©phanâs side within a point of that group which also includes Nice and a stirring Marseille who beat Dijon. Strasbourgâs winning run ended at four games, a 2-1 loss to Angers dropping Thierry Laureyâs charges to ninth and 35 points, while fellow upstarts Reims fell to tenth on goal difference after drawing at Toulouse. With just two points between seven evenly matched sides and only two Europa League spots likely available, four matches between top-10 teams in the next week could prove crucial.
â¢ StÃ©phane Moulin continues to quietly subvert expectations at Angers. His workmanlike, relegation-tipped squad have again comfortably manoeuvred their way into midtable. Their 2-1 win over in-form Strasbourg at a boisterous Stade de la Meinau this weekend counts among Moulinâs best. Without creative lynchpin Flavien Tait, former Arsenal forward Jeff Reine-Adelaide and midfield workhorse Pierrick Capelle, both goals were scored by stand-in (and often wayward) striker Wilfried Kanga. Moulinâs stubborn and streetwise teams rarely excite but they are rarely outplayed and usually get results â hats off to Ligue 1âs most unheralded coach.
Ligue 1 table