Having led OGC Nice to a surprise fourth-placed Ligue 1 finish last season, Claude Puel is now targeting success in only their second European campaign since 1976/77 as they visit Apollon Limassol FC in the UEFA Europa League play-offs.
Puel may be no stranger to this level, notably having taken Olympique Lyonnais to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals in 2010. However, for Nice, their trip to Cyprus is their first in continental competition since a 1-1 draw at SK Slavia Praha ended their 1997/98 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup run in the second round. In Nice, though, Puel found what he likes the most at a football club: the directors' full confidence, a hard-working squad and young talent to mould in a long-term plan.
He took over from René Marsiglia in May 2012 after a year away from coaching following a painful split with Lyon. Before he came back, the man who played almost 500 French top-flight games with AS Monaco FC before becoming their coach cautiously evaluated his options. He seemingly made a choice true to the character he demonstrated at LOSC Lille, laying the foundations for the team that were to clinch the 2010/11 double.
Firstly Puel is seen as an educator, able to bring the best out of young players. He has found willing pupils at Nice, mostly notably 17-year-old Neal Maupay, currently injured, who claimed his first Ligue 1 goal last December, the second youngest player ever to score in the division.
There are more. This summer, Alexy Bosetti helped France to win the FIFA U-20 World Cup just before Lucas Rougeaux claimed UEFA European Under-19 Championship silver. Valentin Eysseric has also been nurtured by Puel, who has also brought the best from unsung players like midfielder Éric Bauthéac and club top scorer Dario Cvitanich, who recently signed a new deal. "I just tried to make them more ambitious throughout our game," Puel said.
Secondly, just as was the case at LOSC, Puel needed total confidence from a president – at Nice this has come in the shape of Jean-Pierre Rivère. "He signed a three-year contract but we want him for more," businessman Rivère said late last season, when Nice were proving a threat to Paris Saint-Germain FC, Olympique de Marseille and Lyon.
The long term is indeed the third part of Puel's masterplan. On 21 September, Nice inaugurate their new stadium, a UEFA EURO 2016 venue. "Without this stadium I wouldn't have come," he said. "To conduct such a project everyone must be together. This is very important."
More immediately, though, is the return to UEFA competition and the attempt to get past Apollon over the next two Thursdays to earn a place in the group stage. "Playing in Europe, being on the pitch every three days, those are things my team do not know about for the moment," Puel said.
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