Marouane Chamakh has made an immediate impression at Arsenal FC but, as he gears up to visit FK Partizan, he says FC Girondins de Bordeaux will always be dear to his heart.
"I'd been dreading it for weeks," says Marouane Chamakh of his last home match for FC Girondins de Bordeaux. "I knew it'd be emotional and there'd probably be some tears, but I wasn't sure how the fans were going to react."
The 26-year-old need not have worried. The Chaban-Delmas crowd gave him a roaring send-off. At the final whistle, the teary-eyed striker clambered into the Virage Sud with a loudhailer but chants of "Merci, Marouane! Merci, Marouane! Merci!" drowned him out. He says: "
Bordeaux were like a second family. I was a kid when I joined and I experienced everything there. I guess the fans kept liking me because they knew I had always given 150%."
Chamakh talks like he plays – wholeheartedly. "I never calculate my efforts," he says. "I just run and run and fight and fight for as long as my legs will allow. But to play like that I need the trust of the coach, team-mates and fans. I'm at Arsenal today because I was lucky to have a club and fans that supported me."
Chamakh joined Bordeaux at 16 and struggled at first. "I come from a big, close-knit family. I used to do everything with my three brothers and loved spending time with my baby sister. Suddenly I had to leave all that behind."
But encouraged by dad Mustapha he flourished and learned a lot in training with Christophe Dugarry: "Duga helped me become more complete. He taught me how to shield the ball better and helped me improve my movement."
The teenager took the FIFA World Cup winner's first-team place six months later. Chamakh was also tipped to step into Dugarry's France shirt after representing Les Bleus at youth level, but at 19 he took the call from Morocco. "I might have made the decision a bit hastily," he says. "But I knew how much it would mean to my parents and I'm proud to have already played 50 odd times for Morocco. I wanted to keep that link to my origins."
You can see how much he likes to help others in the way he plays. His tendency to give rather than take has prompted talk he is not selfish enough to be a great striker. Only once in Chamakh's first six seasons did his goal tally reach double figures. Matters didn't really change until Laurent Blanc arrived in 2007.
"I still remember our first talk," Chamakh says. "Blanc said he rated me and was counting on me but if I wanted to play regularly, I had to raise my game and start scoring more. He said it was up to me."
Chamakh rose to the challenge, as he proved with a landmark display at AS Monaco FC in December 2008. With Bordeaux 3-0 down, Blanc sent him on in the second half. He changed the game with two towering headers and set up Fernando Cavenaghi for the winner. Blanc never left him out of a big game again.
This gave Chamakh the belief to match the talent. He no longer felt inferior to the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor and scored 13 league goals in 2008/09 as Bordeaux won their first title in a decade. "Laurent Blanc told me if I stayed, we'd do something beautiful together in the Champions League, and he was right.
"The previous season we'd been like tourists. We went to Chelsea and just watched and admired them. We knew we'd let ourselves down and really wanted to show we had quality. Last season, we didn't do badly, we beat Bayern twice and could've gone even further than the quarters."
Chamakh nearly left in 2009, but Bordeaux rejected Arsenal's bid. He gritted his teeth and did well again, scoring ten Ligue 1 goals and five in the UEFA Champions League where, he feels, being a lone striker sharpened his game: "It demanded a lot more work. But I enjoyed trying to unsettle the Juve defence – knowing how tough and strong they are was a great challenge."
He still feels guilty about leaving Bordeaux on a free – "They did so much for me, I'm not proud" – but intends to progress in London. "I can still improve a lot. Wenger's a great manager who gets the best out of his players." And in no time at all: Chamakh has scored three goals in his first six games in England.
Once again he is missing his family and his mother's couscous but the presence of his younger brother, who moved to London with him, has helped. "I'll only do well if I adapt fully," he insists. "I have to get to know my team-mates, learn the language and discover a new culture. I'm going to apply myself in every aspect of my life."
Champions, the official UEFA Champions League magazine, is on sale on newsstands across Europe. Subscribe