PARIS, AFP: Mario Balotelli endured a frustrating afternoon as Nice dropped two vital points in the French title race with a 1-1 draw at mid-table Nantes on Saturday.
Nice had plenty of the ball but Balotelli was well shackled by the home defence -- not always fairly -- and the maverick Italian striker won his side a series of free-kicks in dangerous areas that they failed to make the most of.
The draw means Nice stay third, a point behind Paris Saint-Germain and four off leaders Monaco, but both have a game in hand in a three-way tussle for the title.
Argentine forward Emiliano Sala put Nantes ahead on 22 minutes when his strike was too hot to handle for Nice goalkeeper Yoan Cardinale.
Jean Michael Seri equalised with a cracker from the edge of the box six minutes later, rifling home into the top corner.
"It is a good point," said Nice boss Lucien Favre, whose side were the pacesetters in Ligue 1 but have been usurped at the top and only drew 2-2 home to struggling Caen last week.
"It was a difficult encounter, as expected from a team that is very committed and powerful.
"The beginning was especially difficult, but we got better and scored a great equaliser."
Balotelli, whose early season form has dipped after a succession of injuries and suspensions, cut an increasingly demoralised figure and was often left isolated up front.
His travails were summed up 10 minutes from time when a promising breakaway for Nice left him unmarked in front of goal but a cross from the left was behind him and the move broke down.
He threw his arms up in anger.
Seven minutes from time Favre subbed a despondent Balotelli, who had just one shot on target all game.
And it was Nantes who might have stolen all three points in the second minute of injury time when Prejuce Nakoulma went down in the box under a heavy challenge from Valentin Eysseric.
It looked like a penalty but Nakoulma was booked as Nice were left hanging on.
Nantes coach Sergio Conceicao stormed on to the pitch at the end to confront referee Benoit Millot and his players surrounded the official.
"Today, with the penalty (not given) at the end, it was ridiculous," he said.
"I do not want to talk too much about the referee because there are days when they are not at their best and I understand that because sometimes it was me who was the same.
"But it's a shame, it's two points lost."
Monaco, who dumped Manchester City out of the Champions League last 16 in midweek, can extend their lead at the top when they travel to Caen in Sunday's early match.
Reigning champions Paris Saint-Germain, still reeling from their Champions League collapse at Barcelona, round off the weekend French league action as they entertain in-form Lyon at the Parc des Princes.
In other games on Saturday, Bordeaux hammered Montpellier 5-1 at home and are sixth, pushing Marseille for a spot in Europe.
At the other end of the table Lorient scored the winner in the fourth minute of injury time in a thrilling 3-2 victory at Nancy in a relegation six-pointer.
Lorient are still bottom but just three points from safety and dragged Nancy deeper into the mire.