Top goalscorer ahead of Mbappe, named by Henry, targets Arsenal…Balog’s hatch

Folarin Balogun has been rocking the counters with Stade Reims this season. The 21-year-old striker, on loan from Arsenal, who scored a hat-trick against Lorient on Wednesday (4-2), is ahead of Ligue 1 top scorer Kylian Mbappe. Dubbed by Thierry Henry and praised by his coach Will Still, it’s a big reward for English international Espoirs.

When Nicolas Pépé left Arsenal last summer, he was given a challenge: score ten goals in Ligue 1. And it only took him half a season to catch up. Folarin is doing better with Stade de Reims, where Balogu was loaned without even being able to buy. At the beginning of February, the 21-year-old striker is simply at the top of the goalscoring charts, having scored 14 goals in 21 days. In front of Kylian Mbappe (13) and Terem Moffi, Neymar, Jonathan David, Wissam Ben Yedder and Alexandre Lacazette (12). The OL center forward, who worked side by side with him in “Toppers”, is one of those who came and advised him to toughen up in France.

The result, like his hat-trick against Lorient, is quite spectacular in Auguste-Delaune (4-2) on Wednesday. Balogun, whose team was trailing 2-0, changed the game in thirteen minutes. Time to take the penalty, score with a volley from the right and succeed in a great recovery from the left. Something that would impress his coach Will Still, who deployed him in front of a 4-2-3-1.

A special relationship with Will Still

“He has a certain clarity because it’s difficult to take a penalty when you’re behind. Then he scores two goals of exceptional quality. The volley is very difficult to shoot. And to finish with the left foot with one touch, it shows. He’s a striker. He worked hard for the team again. He , is the ‘Balo’ that we know, that we see every day. Hats off to him because I think it’s his first hat trick,” he said. – old coach.

On positioning his defender a bit during the pass: “You really have to highlight the quality of that last goal. The pass is perfect, but normally his left leg breaks and there he takes it flat-footed and puts it into a small net.”

Will Still taunted Folarin Balogun with a cool-headed equalizer in the dying seconds of extra time (1-1) ahead of Sunday’s draw with PSG at the Parc des Princes. “I advise you not to speak to him in French because his French is broken,” the Belgian coach said at the press conference. During a training session filmed by Prime Video, he had already challenged the centre-forward on the matter, throwing him away with a smile: “Your French is absolutely wild, terrible!”

A striker in the service of his team

Signs of love that reflect how Balogu (who has been taking French lessons since his arrival) blends easily into the decor in Champagne-Ardenne. With his likeability, open-mindedness and willingness to improve in every session, the Gunners hopeful quickly won over the audience. “We’ve been able to create an environment where Balo feels good,” Will Still explained last weekend. “His runs, his reach, his dedication and his attitude when we don’t have the ball. He’s a very good striker, he’s already shown some exciting things.”

His partners are all under the spell, as is Dutch midfielder Azor Matusiva: “Folarin is really important for us. Not only with his goals, but also with his play. He helps us a lot. He’s full of confidence, we need him. Keep it up. It’s great to have him with us. we are very happy.”

He can play in three countries

Born in Brooklyn, New York, where part of his mother’s family lives, Balogun grew up in London. He started playing football at the Aldersbrook club located in the northeast of the city. Around the age of 11, he had trials at Arsenal and Tottenham at the same time. For almost a month and a half, he played simultaneously for two rival clubs before signing a contract with the Gunners. England international Espoirs wore the USA U18 jersey knowing he could also be called up by his parents’ country of Nigeria. So far, the number 29 from Reims has not yet chosen a sports team. It will be a family decision, he said.

Meanwhile, this big fan of Brazilian Ronaldo continues his rise, abusing the net at a maddening pace. Only Erling Haaland (25 goals with Manchester City) and Harry Kane (16 goals with Tottenham) do more damage in the major European leagues. Arriving under some pressure at Reims, he has already done better than his predecessor Hugo Ekitike, who left for PSG and scored 10 goals last season. By missing just one match (against Lille last month). His constant challenges, speed of running, speed of execution, constant efforts and pressing make him one of the most dangerous strikers in the French championship today. And real poison for opposing defenses. Far from the stat lines.

Always looking for improvement

Close to Bukayo Saka, whom he trains across the Channel (they are the same age), Folarin Balogun, who could benefit from the advice of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Arsenal, is looking for constant improvement. “I know I’m fast and I can resist contact, so the most important thing for me is really timing, he told the LFP website in November. If you leave at the right time, nobody can stop you. I have to be very killer. I have to be able to finish games in all possible ways: left, right and header.”

A mentality much admired by the Reims staff, Will Still, the leader of the team’s 13-match unbeaten run in L1: “He is very aware. He knows exactly what he needs to do. But he doesn’t do it. He has a big ego. He doesn’t worry . It’s a daily blessing to have a player like that.”

Exiled against his family’s advice

After seven appearances for Arsenal’s first team (two in the PL, five in the Europa League), Balogun was loaned to Middlesbrough in the Championship last year. A fruitless experience as a playmaker (21 games, 3 goals) that convinced him to leave the London cocoon to try his luck at the Marne. Against his family’s advice. “I’ve always liked to take risks. I’m not someone who considers it safe. The easiest solution would be to stay in England. But I didn’t feel like it. I wanted to test myself, get out. see my comfort zone and how I would react to a new challenge.”

A mentality that surprised Thierry Henry. The Gunners’ all-time top scorer (228) knows Folarin Balogu well because he saw him perform at his favorite club. “He’s good at Reims because he wears the same colors as Arsenal,” joked the 1998 world champion on Prime Video. I’m surprised he’s coming to France because usually young Englishmen stay in the Championship or the Premier League. “The league clubs are a bit lower. They don’t like to move too much. It shows the mentality of the guy. What I like about him is that he’s an English striker. He goes deep, he tackles, he presses. He also finishes, he’s not afraid of anyone and that’s important.”

Valuable advice from Thierry Henry

Before PSG-Reims, Henry and Balogun had a few words on the lawn of the Park. The 21-year-old then paid tribute to his former Highbury idol by emulating his celebration from the corner. Before finding him on set and asking him to pose for a live photo with Zimbabwe teammate Marshall Munetsi. It must be said that Henry was always kind to the young Londoner and gave him valuable advice. First at the training center, then at the beginning of his professional career.

“I saw him during the Arsenal-Tottenham derby, Balogun told LFP. Without seeing him in front of Thierry. He grabbed my arm to say hello and ask how I was. He told me to stop and he had quite strong words. To motivate me, especially: ” If you believe you have the potential to play for Arsenal, show it. I still remember his encouragement vividly today.”

A place with the Gunners next season?

Also scoring against Les Herbiers (National 4) in the French Cup, the 1.78m right-hander, who is valued at €14m by Transfermarkt, will now have to continue in Ligue 1 under the new status. And more vigilant defense. An opportunity to further mature before considering a return to Arsenal, where he is under contract until 2025. The hope of finding a place in the team of Mikel Arteta, who was the champion of England until then.

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