The top of the Ligue 1 goalscoring charts tends to be the preserve of experienced international strikers like Aruna Dindane of Lens and PSG's Pauleta. This season, however, their ranks have been infiltrated by Le Mans' Guinean forward Ismael Bangoura, who has taken almost everyone by surprise by finding the target seven times so far.
He might not quite have the raw power of the Ivorian or the ruthlessness of the Portuguese hitman, but he does score goals, and lots of them. With 14 games played, Bangoura is in fact the leading goalscorer in the country, level with Dindane. And his performances have a lot to do with the successful season being enjoyed by MUC 72, who now lie in a creditable eleventh position in their second consecutive season in the top flight.
His appetite for success well and truly stimulated, the Le Mans man is now setting himself new ambitious targets. "I don't see why I can't finish the season as the club and league's top scorer," he recently declared, having stated at the start of the season that he needed to score "at least ten goals".
Rather than being a mere pipedream, such a lofty aim is fast becoming a reality. And for this, a large slice of the credit can be attributed to two factors: the first is the quality of play being produced by the Sarthe region outfit. Courtesy of the enthusiasm and technical ability of the Japanese Daisuke Matsui, the craft of the Ivorian Romaric and the experience of the Brazilian Grafite, Bangoura is receiving a regular supply of clear-cut chances.
Consequently, it is not surprising to hear the Guinean international upping the ante: "The team creates so many openings, I could even get 20 or 30 goals!" If you add together the two goals he garnered in the League Cup and the seven he has already plundered in the top flight, Bangoura is well on the way to reaching that target. The promising tally of his first Ligue 1 season (23 matches, 6 goals) is already a distant memory.
A growing reputation and a nickname to boot
The second factor which explains Bangoura's success is his speed of execution. "While some players take half a second to shoot, he does it in one tenth," explains his coach at Le Mans, Frederic Hantz, with perhaps a hint of exaggeration. "In the face of such speed, goalkeepers don't have time to react."
The same phenomenon has been observed by Patrice Neveu, the former coach of Guinea who launched Bangoura on the international scene. "I've rarely seen a player like that. He can strike the ball awfully hard without taking a great swing. He's still got work to do on his finishing to become even stronger, but at 21, time's on his side." It is this same speed and power which have already earned him a reputation as a penalty box predator par excellence, along with a nickname to strike fear into the hearts of the bravest defenders: 'the Trigger'.
As is so often the case, Bangoura's big adventure began in far less illustrious surroundings than the glamorous grounds of Ligue 1. "When I used to play in the streets of Conakry, I never thought twice about shooting from 25 or 30 metres and would try my luck from any angle," he recalls fondly. Before long, he had graduated from street games to a local league club, Athletico Coleah, where he was spotted by scouts from French third division outfit GFCO Ajaccio.
So Bangoura packed his bags for Corsica, where he swiftly made an impact by netting 15 times in 44 games. Such a strike rate was sufficient to catch the eye of Le Mans, a club renowned for its ability to sniff out a bargain. He was duly recruited to the ranks of the Sang et Or and went on to make his top flight debut against Olympic Marseille on 5 November in 2005.
A memorable debut
It was no gentle introduction for the young centre-forward, as the opposing goal was guarded by a French football legend in Fabien Barthez. Unfazed, the Guinean scored the first Le Mans goal in what was a resounding 3-0 win. "My finest memory so far is scoring against a world champion," he professed a year later.
Where memories are concerned, Ismael is in the process of accumulating a fine collection, having hit a brace of goals against Lens on matchday 2 and a hat-trick against Auxerre ten days later. But the 21-year-old is not getting carried away and seems to have found the key to steady progress. "It's not easy for a player coming from the third division to adapt to Ligue 1. I came here to learn, and in order to learn well, you have to be able to listen."
So the warnings of his coach should fall on receptive ears: "His success is going to put more pressure on him. We now have to ensure he doesn't lose his focus. He listens, but he needs help keeping his feet on the ground," acknowledges the coach of the Sarthe club.
But he could scarcely be in safer hands, as Le Mans are past masters at nurturing and then unleashing great strikers. Not so long ago, another African attacker was in rampant form at the Stade Leon Bollee. His name was Didier Drogba, and many see the same kind of striking quality in young Ismael Bangoura.