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Europe the target for duelling Saint-Etienne, Nice
Ligue 1 surprise package Nice travel to a resurgent Saint-Etienne on Saturday, as the race for Champions League football next season gathers momentum in France.
Following a stuttering start to the campaign in which Nice collected just one victory from 10 outings, Claude Puel -- in his first season at the helm -- has transformed the coastal side from perennial mid-table also-rans into European hopefuls.
A sequence of 11 wins in 16 matches since November, including the scalp of domestic heavyweights Paris Saint-Germain, has propelled Nice into fourth place on 45 points, just one shy of Marseille who presently occupy the final Champions League spot.
On Saturday, they face a Saint-Etienne team unbeaten in 2013 and just one point behind them in the standings.
"One only has to look at their statistics: they are unbeaten (this year)," Puel highlighted.
"They are a complete team all across the pitch, and one not depleted by injuries. They will probably put forth their best side in terms of strength and confidence," he continued.
Saint-Etienne briefly topped the table in November before a calamitous stretch of six matches without a win sent Christophe Galtier's side into freefall.
However, the return to form of Gabon international Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has coincided with a drastic upturn in fortunes at Stade Geoffrey-Guichard, the venue for Saturday's encounter.
Aubameyang has scored in each of his last five league appearances, including a brace in last weekend's 3-0 triumph at Nancy, after a goalless stretch that spanned 12 matches.
"My performances certainly dipped, but I don't think it's because I lost confidence. There was a bit of fatigue. I wouldn't say I started doubting myself. We all kept on working hard together and I tried to stay confident and focussed," the 23-year-old told beIN Sport.
Those sentiments were echoed by Galtier, who added: "He never let his head drop. He did everything possible to try to get his form back as quickly as possible."
Title-holders Montpellier have long since conceded any hope of retaining their crown, but a run of eight wins in 11 has the defending champions at least harbouring hopes of a return to Europe's top club competition.
"The players want to play in the Champions League again. There was a time when we were a long way off the podium, but now we're just five points off third place," said Montpellier defender Vitorino Hilton, whose side host fellow European challengers Rennes on Friday.
"We're performing better at home than we are away. We have to keep on winning at home, and try and get some points away to be able to think about qualifying for the Champions League," he told Ligue1.com.
Bolstered by consecutive victories over bitter rivals Marseille in both the league and French Cup, PSG's title quest takes them north to face Reims on Saturday.
The capital club own a three-point advantage over chasing Lyon, whose pursuit of the table-toppers continues away to Brest on Sunday.
Fixtures (kick-off 1900GMT unless otherwise stated):
Montpellier v Rennes (1930)
Reims v PSG (1600), Saint-Etienne v Nice, Lorient v Valenciennes, Sochaux v Nancy, Bastia v Ajaccio, Toulouse v Evian
Brest v Lyon (1300), Marseille v Troyes (1600), Lille v Bordeaux (2000)
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