Lassana Diarra: Former Real Madrid star struggling at cash-rich Anzhi
The 27-year-old Frenchman has had somewhat of a stuttering career to date so far, but having already plied his trade for some of the world’s biggest clubs, his purchase was a real coup. But for some fans, buying a player who is not quite a superstar is a major disappointment.
Anzhi are taking Europe and Russia by storm this season, passing into the Europa League knockout stages with flying colours, and providing more traditional Russian powerhouses CSKA and Zenit with a stern challenge in the Russian league.
For the supporters, however, it’s hard understanding that players such as Lionel Messi aren’t going to straight away make the move east, and with such high, and sometimes quite ridiculous, expectations, a heavy fall is always going to be waiting. To call the purchase of Diarra a disappointment may be a tad harsh, but the red carpet wasn’t quite rolled out for him upon his arrival.
At the age of 27, the next few coming years in Diarra’s career are without doubt going to be the most crucial. By this age, most players are settled down in their respective clubs, and going through their prime. It isn’t quite the case with Diarra however. With Anzhi, he is now with his sixth club, and Russia is no less than the 4th country that he has ended up in. And it’s been some journey in his career that has so far lasted a mere 9 years.
It all started in his home country, France, with hometown club Paris FC giving him his path into the beautiful game. But it wasn’t the most stable of beginnings into the sport. In his youth, he went through 5 different local French clubs, before eventually settling down with Le Havre, a club which is incidentally the oldest sporting club in France. Diarra managed to gain a professional contract just in time for the 2003/2004 season, and it soon became clear that Le Havre would have a fight to keep him on their books for a prolonged amount of time.
In his debut season, Diarra was found on the pitch no less than an impressive 29 times, and started earning plaudits almost immediately. His role in efficiently and elegantly protecting the defence while helping to assist the more attack-minded midfielders was impressing the French media and fans alike, and after just a few months of being a professional footballer, his first call up to the French under-21 international side came his way. And it wasn’t just the French who were keeping a close eye on Diarra.
English giants Chelsea couldn’t ignore the ever increasing hype surrounding the young Frenchman, and after just one season at Le Havre, London became Diarra’s new home. And for Chelsea, it appeared the ideal transfer. Chelsea already had a French midfielder on their books at the time, Claude Makelele, but as he was approaching the twilight years of an illustrious career with the Londoners, Diarra was seen a direct replacement.
But despite starring in Le Havre’s first team squad, he found himself in Chelsea’s reserve squad more often than not. But even there, he couldn’t be ignored too long. As the 2005/06 season wore on, more and more opportunities in the first team started to come his way, and even at the end of the season, his patience was rewarded with two matches in a row on the pitch for 90 minutes, in games against Blackburn and Newcastle.
Just to cap it all off, he received the prestigious award of Chelsea’s young player of the year for that season, and if his career wasn’t already starting to take flight, he was now soaring into the sky with no intent to turn back.
But in 2007, his first real difficulties started to arise. After failing to hold down a regular starting spot in Chelsea’s line up and often being played out of position, he made the switch to crosstown rivals Arsenal. With Arsene Wenger’s world renowned reputation of nurturing young talent, the move was thought of a wise one, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. Just as he experienced at Chelsea, he had limited time on the pitch, and after just a half a season, Diarra made his second switch in as many years to Portsmouth, a move that would prove inspired.
In contrast to his life in London, Diarra didn’t find himself sitting on the bench too often. Almost immediately finding his feet in the first team, he started showing the form which got French journalists so excited back at Le Havre. In addition to playing every remaining match of Portsmouth’s victorious FA Cup run, he even managed to sneak his way into the French squad for Euro 2008 in the summer.
He didn’t stop there either, scoring Portsmouth’s first ever goal in European competition in the following summer, and in the January of 2009, exactly one year after signing for the South coast side, he was on the move yet again.
But this time he was moving clubs for all the right reasons. It isn’t every day Real Madrid come calling after your services, and Diarra jumped at the chance to show what he could do with the most famous club in the world. Just like he found at Portsmouth, he found himself on the pitch more often than not, even being given the number 10 shirt. This only showed what kinds of expectations Real had for him; expectations which he fulfilled, in parts.
While failing to really shine, he became a reliable and effective cog of the slick Real machine, a role which he managed to hold down for just over 3 years. But as his opportunities in the first team started to become less and less frequent, and already being in the prime of his career, he was forced to pack his suitcases yet again.
Anzhi, with their banknotes at the ready, came sniffing around, and in August of 2012 they got their man, providing Diarra with the last chance to really realise his once great potential. And on the face of it, he fits into Anzhi’s game perfectly.
While the Russians have a wealth of attacking talent in their midfield such as Mbarak Boussoufa and Mehdi Gonzalez, they lack the balance of having an effective defensive midfielder, a void which Diarra was seen to perfectly fill. But it hasn’t all quite gone to plan. Injuries have struck, which have limited him to just the 7 chances to prove his worth to the Russians, and failing to catch the eye when finding himself fit enough to play.
But all is not lost. If lady luck decides to fall on Diarra’s shoulders more for the coming year, maybe, just maybe, we will see the player who sent French football alight just 9 years ago as a fresh-faced teenager.
With his talents of effectively shielding the defence while having the ability to create a fast counterattack, he fits into Anzhi’s system perfectly, and the opportunity to show everyone just why world giants Chelsea and Real Madrid believed in him so much will surely arrive.