Bouanga leading the way for Saint-Etienne
By A. Scott
AS Saint-Etienne will again be looking to the in-form Denis Bouanga for inspiration when they travel to Champagne country to face Stade de Reims on Sunday.
Stade de Reims - AS Saint-Etienne
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The 25-year-old scored twice - including the opener from the penalty spot - and laid on another goal in Wednesday's 4-1 demolition of OGC Nice as Claude Puel's side got back on track following a defeat in Rennes in their previous outing. It was a performance that confirmed Bouanga's ever-increasing importance to Les Verts, with the Gabon international having contributed seven goals and three assists since his arrival from Nîmes Olympique.
"We put in all the ingredients needed to win the match, and we got our heads back in the right place after being knocked out of the Europa League. The penalty helped us, we all gave 100 percent, scored four goals and it was a complete performance," Bouanga said after the match, which left Saint-Etienne in fifth place, only a point behind Girondins de Bordeaux in third.
Highlights: Saint-Etienne blast away Nice to get back on track
The first Gabonese star to turn out for the club since a certain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he has flourished more than any other player since Puel's appointment, having already netted winning goals against Bordeaux - also from the spot - and AS Monaco, as well as bagging a brace in last month's 3-2 victory at FC Nantes. On top of that he played a part in both goals in the 2-2 draw at home to Amiens SC in late October.
All that is despite Bouanga being shuffled around several positions as Puel tries to settle on a favoured formation. In midweek he started wide on the left in a 4-4-2 with Robert Beric and Romain Hamouma through the middle. Last weekend he partnered Loïs Diony up front in the defeat at the hands of Stade Rennais FC, while three days prior he was a left wing-back in the 0-0 draw with KAA Gent that condemned Saint-Etienne to a group-stage exit in the Europa League.
Asked to explain the change in formation in midweek, Puel responded: "A system with four defenders allows you to have an extra player in attack and to play more football. When we play with 'pistons', the risk is that they just become full-backs who defend too deep. That was the case at Rennes due to fatigue and we found ourselves up against it."
"The system with three central defenders is something I like when we have fresh players, but we need to find a balance game by game in terms of who is fresh and what players are available. Not everyone can play in a back four."
Puel has also not been helped by injuries, with last season's leading scorer Wahbi Khazri currently out with a fractured hand, while William Saliba and Yohan Cabaye have also been on the sidelines. Zaydou Youssouf, the midfielder, is back after suspension here.
Highlights: Reims and Bordeaux share the honours
It may not be easy for Bouanga to keep up his recent form in front of goal with Reims boasting the meanest defence in the division alongside leaders Paris Saint-Germain, having let in only eight goals since the campaign began.
Of course, David Guion's side have also struggled to put the ball in the net at the other end, with only 11 goals scored in their 15 matches. At least their misfiring attack will be itching to get into action after the mist led to their midweek game in Amiens being postponed.
It will now be played in January, and one further consequence of that is that veteran midfielder Alaixys Romao is suspended here as Reims chase a first win in six league outings.
Reims: Rajkovic; Foket, Disasi, Abdelhamid, Kamara; Chavalerin, Munetsi; Donis, Vafaro, Doumbia; Dia
Saint-Etienne: Ruffier; Debuchy, Fofana, Perrin, Silva; M'vila, Youssouf; Hamouma, Boudebouz, Bouanga; Diony
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