Gabon striker Bouanga thriving with Saint-Etienne under Puel

Striker Denis Bouanga’s move from Nimes to Saint-Etienne did not make headlines last offseason.

With sports fans focusing on Julian Alaphilippe’s exploits at the Tour de France, Bouanga’s transfer to the country’s most decorated club was largely unnoticed.

The 4.5 million euros ($4.9 million) deal has, however, proved to be one of the most astute purchases of the transfer window, with the Gabon international blossoming into a consistent and decisive scorer for Saint-Etienne under the guidance of new coach Claude Puel.

After a woeful start to the season that left the team stranded in 19th place, Saint-Etienne sacked Ghislain Printant and replaced him with the experienced Puel. Since then, Saint-Etienne has claimed 17 points from a possible 24, and Bouanga is prominent in the turn of fortune.

Bouanga, who scored just once under Printant, bagged two more goals midweek — from a penalty and a glanced header — as Saint-Etienne beat Nice 4-1 and moved within one point of the league’s top three ahead of this weekend’s round. With two assists and seven goals in 16 games, Bouanga is just one goal shy of the career-best total he registered last season with Nimes.

“It gives me a lot of confidence,” Bouanga said after his brace. “It’s not too bad. Hopefully I can improve last season’s tally. I’m a competitor, I’m always there if the coach needs me.’’

A technically gifted player with excellent qualities in the air, the 25-year-old Bouanga has also been showing depth of character, scoring winning goals against Monaco and Bordeaux.

Football has not always been so profitable for the much-traveled Bouanga, who struggled in the youth categories. After catching the eye of Le Mans scouts, he spent two years at the French club’s academy but failed to secure a contract. Bouanga then left for a small amateur team where he was spotted by Franck Haise, the man who signed him for the Lorient reserve team in 2014.

Haise recently told L’Equipe newspaper he was seduced by Bouanga’s good humor, work ethic, and humility.

“It was his carelessness that seduced me at the time, his joy of living and playing,” Haise said. “He was happy to be there, to train, to play, regardless of whether it was against a regional side or a Ligue 1 team. From what I see of him now, he has kept this mindset.”

After scoring four goals in seven matches with the Lorient reserves, Bouanga received a call up for a League Cup match, signed his first professional contract, and made his league debut with the Brittany team against Paris Saint-Germain. Since that dream week five years ago, Bouanga has not slowed down.

Before his successful stint at Nimes, he had 25 goals in 70 matches with Lorient and Tours in the second-tier league.

Bouanga hopes to follow in the footsteps of another Gabon striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who became a star at Saint-Etienne and scored 31 times in 62 matches before signing for Borussia Dortmund and then Arsenal.

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