PARIS (AP) — With Paris Saint-Germain still holding a strong lead in the French title race, the fight for second place is heating up down south between Nice and Marseille.
They are 11 points behind PSG with Nice in second spot on goal difference while Marseille has played one game less.
If it remains this close, much will depend on the form and fitness of each team’s best player: 21-year-old Nice forward Amine Gouiri and wily 34-year-old Marseille playmaker Dimitri Payet.
Gouiri has produced several outstanding performances this season, and his combination of finishing and vision have allowed him to rack up nine goals and five assists.
That’s as many goals as PSG star Kylian Mbappe, who has eight assits and is carrying PSG’s title charge. They have scored two penalties each, both been their team’s only scorer in a game seven times, and spent roughly the same amount of time on the field, too.
Nice hosts mid-table Nantes on Friday night and Marseille completes the 21st round of games at home to defending champion Lille on Sunday night.
Payet, the former France international, will look to add to his seven goals — also including two penalties — and six assists.
Much leaner and fitter than last season, Payet is recapturing his best form despite his advancing years.
While not at the level of 2016, when he was named in the English Premier League’s team of the season with West Ham and then shone for France at the 2016 European Championship, he is the key player in coach Jorge Sampaoli’s side.
In early December his pass for Gerson allowed him to break the 200-barrier in French soccer for goals and assists.
He’s popular with fans again after previously falling out with them and wore a festive Santa Claus hat after scoring in a home game on Dec. 22.
Even when he’s not hitting spectacular goals with one of his laser-beam long shots, dancing past defenders with his balletic balance, or opening up defenses with his shrewd passing, Payet’s influence still plays a key role.
Take last Friday night, for example, when his dummy run allowed Cengiz Under’s to score in the visitors’ 1-0 win. Marseille’s first in Bordeaux since October 1977. It led to victorious scenes when the players returned to Marseille airport.
Marseille’s chances of overhauling Nice also depend on whether Poland striker can Arkadiusz Milik find his best form. He’s scored freely in the French Cup, with four goals in two games against weaker opponents, but has only netted once in 10 league games compared to nine in 15 last season.
The main headache for Nice coach Christophe Galtier is who to select alongside Gouri in attack.
He must choose between Denmark striker Kasper Dolberg or offseason signing Andy Delort, who has made a strong impression since joining from Montpellier.
He has eight goals so far while Dolberg has five.
All three scored against Brest last weekend, with Gouiri’s the best one. Galtier might wish to play them all, but that’s complicated considering his team plays best in a 4-4-2 formation that includes Justin Kluivert playing in a wide role.
He is the 22-year-old son of former Ajax, Barcelona and Netherlands striker Patrick Kluivert, but is a far different player. Smaller, quicker and nimble, he makes skilful runs down the left flank.
He set up his former Ajax teammate Dolberg with a similar run against Brest. In that game, Dolberg made way for Delort, who finished neatly from Gouiri’s sharp movement and defense-splitting pass.
Then it was Gouiri’s turn to score, skipping down the left with one of his trademark runs before cutting inside and curling the ball brilliantly into the top right corner.
Galtier will hope for a few more like that.
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