PARIS (AP) — Mario Balotelli further underlined his real value since joining Nice on a free transfer, scoring his sixth goal in five league games as the French leader thrashed Nantes 4-1 on Sunday.
The Italian striker was also directly involved in two other goals as surprise leader Nice maintained its six-point lead over defending champion Paris Saint-Germain.
Balotelli's impact has been significant, and not just for his goals.
"Mario has been tracking back more," Nice coach Lucien Favre said. "That's positive."
The Nice fans already have a chant for Balotelli — "La, la, la, la, la, la, la, Su-per Mar-io" - in sweet music for Balotelli to hear after two difficult seasons.
Balotelli's unhappy time at Liverpool came to end when the English club sent him on loan to AC Milan last season — his former club — but he got only one goal in 20 league games.
The season before that, he managed only one league goal for Liverpool in 16 games.
When he joined Nice, former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher — a respected stalwart with more than 700 appearances for the English club — sarcastically tweeted that a free transfer was still "over the odds" for Balotelli.
Seven goals in seven games so far — the other was in the Europa League — strongly suggests otherwise.
Balotelli's goal ratio is even more impressive given that he is short of full fitness and has occasional muscle injuries, meaning that he does not always play the full 90 minutes. He was given a rousing ovation when he came off in the 74th minute, by which time Nice was 4-1 up.
Balotelli played a part in the opener, scored by midfielder Wylan Cyprien in the 10th minute.
Younes Belhanda picked out Balotelli's run and, although he was closed down, the ball broke loose in the area and fell for Cyprien.
Balotelli made it 2-0 in the 26th.
Ivory Coast midfielder Jean Michael Seri hit a superb looping pass to Balotelli, who held off a defender before guiding the ball past goalkeeper Remy Riou with the outside of his foot.
"Mario controlled it superbly for his goal," Favre said.
Alassane Plea, a highly promising striker, added the third goal — his seventh of the season.
Then, Balotelli played a key part in the fourth, flicking a superbly timed pass through to Portuguese left back Ricardo Pereira as he broke down the wing, and Cyprien drove the ball home from Pereira's pass.
"We're winning in style," said Favre, who was hired this summer after Claude Puel left to take charge of Premier League side Southampton.
Nice finished fourth last season on limited resources, but looks like doing much better this time.
RENNES 1, METZ 0
Brittany side Rennes has one of the best youth academies in France — arguably second only to Lyon.
Forward Wesley Said is the latest revelation to come through the ranks, and he brilliantly volleyed home the winner against Metz in the 56th minute.
The 21-year-old Said also scored midweek in a League Cup win against Lorient.
"Things are going well for me at the moment," Said said.
Last season, winger Ousmane Dembele caught the eye for Rennes.
He also was shaped by the club, and the 19-year-old Dembele is now starring in the Bundesliga and the Champions League for Borussia Dortmund.
Said has two league goals so far, but with this kind of finishing should get plenty more this season.
The win moved Rennes up to fifth place ahead of next weekend's trip to PSG.
MARSEILLE 0, BORDEAUX 0
Despite the best efforts of winger Florian Thauvin, Marseille could not beat resilient Bordeaux.
The 23-year-old Thauvin, on loan from English side Newcastle, has been in good form.
After going close in the first half, he almost won the game in injury time with a curling effort that goalkeeper Jerome Prior clawed away.
Bordeaux is in ninth place, one place above Marseille.