An instant hit with PFC Levski Sofia fans after scoring nine goals in seven games, Paris-born Garra Dembélé is thriving in Bulgaria after a spell when his career seemed to have stalled.
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French players seem to be lucky for PFC Levski Sofia. Back in 2005, the arrival of attacking midfielder Cédric Bardon heralded their passage to the 2005/06 UEFA Cup quarter-finals, and the UEFA Champions League group stage the following season. Now the form of 24-year-old Garra Dembélé is causing a stir.
Since signing from PFC Lokomotiv Plovdiv in June, Dembélé has played three league games and four more in UEFA Europa League qualifying, netting a mighty nine goals in the process. As Levski visit AIK Solna in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League play-off on Thursday, the Parisian-born Dembélé is already being compared to club legends Georgi Asparuhov, Nasko Sirakov and Georgi Ivanov.
"It is always nice when people make such comparisons, but it is too early for that kind of talk," he said. "Legends are legends. They are the history of the club. These nine goals are just the start for me."
Nevertheless, it is another welcome confidence boost for a player who once believed he had lost his way. Once a room-mate of Arsenal FC's Abou Diaby and Olympique Lyonnais' Hatem Ben Arfa at France's famous Clairefontaine academy, Dembélé initially thrived under a venerable coach at AJ Auxerre. "Guy Roux was like a father to me," he said. "He is a genius, so open and always ready to give you a helping hand."
However, while he was once a regular for France at Under-18 level, Dembélé never got beyond the youth team at Auxerre, and with loan spells at FC Istres and AGF Aarhus proving inconclusive, was released in 2008. He initially tried his luck in Greece with second division Pierikos FC, before bidding to rescue his career while saving Lokomotiv Plovdiv from the drop last season.
With five goals in 14 league games, it seems he did both, with his form prompting a swift move up to Levski. "This is a big club and they gave me the chance to finally play in Europe," he beamed. "I came to Bulgaria five months ago and have adapted quite well. The Bulgarian league is tough, but am training hard and happy to be doing so well."
Having scored twice against their Swedish league rivals Kalmar FF in the third qualifying round, AIK will know well to keep an eye on the powerful Dembélé, who is eager to add to his tally this week. "It is very important to score in the first leg in Sweden, as we did against Kalmar," he said. "Then in Sofia we will rely on our great fans to see us through. It is very important for the club and for me to reach the group stage of the tournament."