The Gabonese striker Denis Bouanga has been struggling in the first half of the French championship, but he has regained the confidence he lacked in the autumn and is playing an active role in the recovery of Saint-Etienne, whose quest to stay in Ligue 1 is going to Lille this Friday.
His goal against Metz (1-0) on Sunday at the Geoffroy-Guichard stadium, the fifth of the season, is worth a lot: it allowed the Greens to escape from the relegation zone by moving up to 17th place, three points ahead of the Mosellans and one more than the play-off team Lorient.
It's not over yet, far from it, among the teams fighting for survival, "the dunces" as coach Pascal Dupraz calls them. But he is helping to restore confidence in the group and particularly in his Gabonese striker, who arrived from Nimes in July 2019 for €4.5 million on a four-year contract.
Denis Bouanga's first two seasons have been satisfactory despite the sporting decline of Les Verts, who was still competing in the Europa League in the autumn of 2019. ASSE, 17th in the standings in March 2020 when the championship was halted due to the Covid-19 crisis, flirted with the relegation zone for a long time in the following season (2020/21), ending in 11th place.
The player scored ten goals (three assists) in his first year and seven in the second (four assists). He was sometimes positioned in a corridor by Claude Puel, who was dismissed in mid-December and with whom relations were sometimes strained, but with Pascal Dupraz the No.20 has found a position upfront.
It allows him to be closer to the opposing goal and to arrive with more freshness in the decision zone, where he was clumsy until a few weeks ago. The Haute-Savoie technician is full of praise for him.
"He has incredible qualities, the kind of qualities needed to play in the Champions League, but I had the impression that he wasn't making the most of them," said the Saint-Etienne coach in a press conference in early March. "He is capable of going quickly and repeating efforts. He is very strong technically. When you are fast, you stay fast. You don't go slower from one day to the next. It's the Denis I know, the one who performed notably in Nimes," he added.
For the player, on a collective level, it's all a question of "a state of mind that has changed". He added: "There is really a group that has put its brain in the right place, that fights for each other. Against Metz, we managed not to score. We're no longer reactive, that's what made us strong in this match.
And individually? "It works better because the group and the coaching staff give me confidence. I needed that, to regain the confidence I had two years ago. That's what they do very well, I work twice as hard to help the team. That's what's working today," said the player.
I've been working twice as hard to help the team and that's what's working now," he said, adding that before his goal against Metz, he had provided two assists against Strasbourg (2-2) and then opened the scoring against PSG (3-1 defeat) at the end of February, repeating his performance from the first leg. "I mustn't stay on this track, I must continue to look for a bit more. I know I can do more," said Bouanga. It is with this mentality that Saint-Etienne can hope to maintain its position.