PARIS — After months of questions regarding his future, the former golden child of French football is back.
Just one year ago, Hatem Ben Arfa was languishing on loan at Hull after falling out of favor at Newcastle, with both clubs expressing doubts about the Frenchman's work ethic. He is now piling up goals in Nice, where his bid to relaunch his troubled career has started with a bang.
With six league goals in eight matches, Ben Arfa is the French league's best striker alongside Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani, having already equaled his season-best tally with a French club.
"It's such a pleasure to play with this team," Ben Arfa said ahead of Saturday's game against Nantes.
The 28-year-old Ben Arfa completed his move to Nice after his transfer was blocked by French soccer authorities in January because of FIFA rules stating a player cannot represent three sides during a season. Dejected by the decision, Ben Arfa thought about retiring but ultimately found the motivation to keep going and trained without a team for six months to remain match-fit.
Ben Arfa, a member of the "Generation 87," a group of promising players born in 1987 that included Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, is now finding his form with an attack-minded team which has scored 20 league goals so far.
Against Saint-Etienne last weekend, Ben Arfa scored twice, including a superb solo goal when he beat five of his opponents before drilling across into the bottom left corner. His strong showings have fuelled speculation about his possible return with the France team ahead of the European Championship.
The former Lyon and Marseille player made his first international appearance in 2007, but his career with France has stalled since a dispute with former coach Laurent Blanc at Euro 2012. He has scored two goals with the national team.
"The French team? It's still far away," Ben Arfa said. "Consistency will make the difference. It's up to me to prove on the field that I deserve a spot."
After eight matches, seventh-place Nice is lagging six points behind PSG, which has already opened up a four-point lead on second-place Saint-Etienne. Following its 4-1 hammering by Nice, Saint-Etienne travels to Caen on Sunday while PSG hosts rival Marseille.
Here are some other things to know about this week's matches:
In the wake of the incidents that marred Marseille's 1-1 home draw with Lyon last month, the club's fans won't travel to the Parc des Princes.
For Marseille supporters, matches against PSG are those which matter the most given the traditional rivalry between the sides. But after play was suspended for 20 minutes at the Stade Velodrome because fans threw projectiles including glass bottles onto the field, the club's main group of supporters have opted for a boycott, fearing new incidents could seriously damage Marseille's image and lead to further sanctions.
Marseille has already been ordered to play a match behind partial closed doors because of the crowd trouble.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has a target in sight against Marseille: PSG's club scoring record of 109 goals.
The Sweden forward would already have reached the milestone if his shot in Wednesday's 3-0 Champions League win over Shakthar Donetsk had not been deflected by Darijo Sma into his own net.
Ibrahimovic has scored 108 goals for PSG in all competitions and is just one shy of Pauleta's record. The former Portugal forward netted 109 in 211 games from 2003-08.
Marseille coach Michel is baffled by his players' attitude ahead of big matches.
With his team languishing 12 points behind PSG in the standings, the Spanish coach launched a scathing attack against what he perceives as a culture of laziness in French football.
"Some of them are telling me that they are tired, that they need to be rested, I'm not used to that," said Michel, who replaced Marcelo Bielsa for this season.
"Apparently players in the French league are preserving themselves, trying not to play too many matches in a row, picking their games when possible," Michel said. "I find it surprising, but I have to adapt."