Paris Saint-Germain have predictably dominated the French Cup in recent years but there is a breath of fresh air about this season’s final as the Qatar-backed club’s absence leaves both Nice and Nantes dreaming of getting their hands on the trophy.
PSG, who have just won their eighth Ligue 1 title in 10 years, had won the Cup in six of the last seven years, the exception coming in 2019 when they lost the final on penalties to Rennes.
This time Mauricio Pochettino’s team were dumped out in the last 16, losing on penalties at home to a Nice side who then eliminated Marseille in the quarter-finals before beating fourth-division Versailles in the semis.
On paper Nice — with the best defence in France marshalled by Brazilian veteran Dante — head to the Stade de France to face Nantes on Saturday as favourites to win their first silverware since lifting their third French Cup in 1997.
They have been transformed into one of Ligue 1’s leading players in recent years, especially since being taken over in 2019 by Ineos, the group chaired by Monaco-based British petrochemicals billionaire Jim Ratcliffe.
Ineos stated their aim to take Nice into the Champions League and last year they appointed Christophe Galtier, the coach fresh from winning the Ligue 1 title with Lille.
Galtier’s side looked racing certainties to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition until a recent stumble in form which risks costing them dear, but a trophy and the Europa League place that goes with it would make up for that.
“It is so exciting to be playing in a final,” Galtier said last week.
Nevertheless, Nice head north to the capital from the Cote d’Azur with the mood among fans somewhat darkened by the revelation last week that Ratcliffe had put forward a bid worth £4.25 billion ($5.3 billion) to buy Chelsea.
Given UEFA rules prevent multiple clubs with the same owner from competing in the Champions League, that raises questions about Ratcliffe’s commitment.
Nantes, meanwhile, are one of the great names of the French game, Champions League semi-finalists in 1996 who then won the Cup in back-to-back years in 1999 and 2000.
In the latter final they defeated fourth-tier amateurs Calais with a last-minute penalty.
A year later Nantes — where Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly started their careers — won the league for the eighth time but they soon fell on harder times.
A year ago the Canaries only avoided relegation in a play-off but this season they have been competing towards the top of the table under Antoine Kombouare, an ex-Nantes player who was the first coach sacked by PSG following the Qatari takeover.
Nantes reached the final by defeating Monaco on penalties, a victory that sparked a joyous pitch invasion from supporters at the Stade de la Beaujoire.
Now they are hoping to qualify for Europe for the first time in two decades.
“We need to play down the significance of the occasion as much as possible,” said Kombouare this week as he tried to take the pressure off his team.
“This is a final, it’s an exceptional moment but what are we risking? We are safe in Ligue 1, and the best-case scenario is that we win and have a party.
“Otherwise we lose and move on,” added Kombouare, who will lose star striker Randal Kolo Muani to Eintracht Frankfurt in the summer.
After the last two finals were played in an almost entirely empty stadium due to the pandemic, there will be a sell-out crowd of around 80,000 this time at the Stade de France.
It will be the first French Cup final refereed by a woman, with Stephanie Frappart — a regular in charge of Ligue 1 matches — overseeing the game.