The enigmatic Lassana Diarra – and a brilliance Portsmouth will forever savour

Lassana Diarra and Pedro Mendes celebrate with the FA Cup after Pompey defeated Cardiff in May 2008Lassana Diarra and Pedro Mendes celebrate with the FA Cup after Pompey defeated Cardiff in May 2008
Lassana Diarra and Pedro Mendes celebrate with the FA Cup after Pompey defeated Cardiff in May 2008
That dwindling Wembley number has diminished a little further with the bowing out of the headline act.

Lassana Diarra, the 2008 FA Cup winners’ principal performer, has called time on an often inscrutable playing career.

At the age of 33, following a season mustering four appearances at Paris Saint-Germain, a week ago the classy midfielder elected to retire.

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More than a decade previous, the Frenchman graced Fratton Park for 12 months, a sufficient timescale to establish himself as one of the Blues’ greatest modern-day performers.

Real Madrid’s January 2009 swoop remains a Pompey record sale, Diarra fetching £20m.

Yet he cut an enigmatic figure during that fleeting south-coast connection.

A withdrawn figure and ever-unwilling to conduct interviews, a mystique surrounded this tantalising talent deemed difficult to manage by those who should know.

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Still, his January 2008 arrival from Arsenal for £5.5m equipped Harry Redknapp’s side with a player of prodigious ability matched by few in Blues memory.

‘Arsene Wenger wasn’t really happy with the amount of distances Lassie was covering compared to players like Aaron Ramsey,’ said Tony Adams, assistant manager when Diarra arrived.

‘Ramsey was still at Cardiff at that stage, they had him in their sights and were comparing his recovery periods and distances to Diarra’s. Diarra was nowhere near.

‘Diarra was coming in at about 500-600 metres in high-intensity running, yet Arsene was demanding all his midfielders produced more than 1,000 metres.

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‘They were willing to let Lassie go because of that physiological aspect of his game.

‘Harry didn’t focus on that because he wasn’t in the business of looking too deeply at the physical side of player analysis. It was a case of “Yes, he’s a decent player, looks good on the eye, get him in”.

‘I thought we could use him differently than a box-to-box player. When you looked at him over 500 metres he was really effective, but Arsenal wanted him to carry out a different game.

‘They wanted him up and down, up and down, box to box, but Lassie didn’t have the capacity to do that.

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‘We put him in the middle of a midfield three. He wasn’t the one going to get forward, instead Sulley Muntari was on the left with Pedro Mendes on the right, so we weren’t asking him to make goals or get into the box.

‘Instead he’d sit in there, being effective in that role and breaking up play within a 20-metre radius in front of your back four.’

Of that squad which defeated Cardiff at Wembley in May 2008, just three continue to play.

Sulley Muntari resides at Spanish Second Division side Albacete, while 37-year-old Milan Baros has netted five goals for Banik Ostrava this term.

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The final member of the trio, David Nugent, remains actively involved at Derby.

Coincidentally, the Rams served as Diarra’s maiden opposition following his Pompey arrival midway through the 2007-08 season.

The following weekend, the Frenchman claimed a first goal in a 2-1 FA Cup third round clash with Plymouth.

And according to Sean Davis, his new team-mate was destined for brief Fratton Park residency.

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‘Diarra leaving was inevitable, most of the players knew he wouldn’t be there for long, and not just because of the financial situation at the club,’ said the ex-Pompey midfielder.

‘It was the same with Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe, you expected them to go on. No disrespect, but they were heading to teams fighting for the Champions League and the Premier League title.

‘I was probably playing my best football for Pompey, then Diarra came! After that, I didn’t play much to be fair, certainly not in my position as the deepest of the midfield three.

‘Sometimes when someone is that good you cannot really say much, you have to get on with it and admire from afar. He gave me a lot of rest actually, me and Richard Hughes sitting on the bench having a chat!

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‘Without the ball, Diarra was extremely good at closing down people, dynamic, tenacious and able to change direction very quickly. With the ball, he could pick a pass or dribble through three or four players. He had it all.

‘As a character, he was quiet, kept himself to himself, had a little laugh and a joke now and again, but hung around more with the French-speaking players.

‘He was one of the best footballers I played with. I wouldn’t say the best, but definitely in that higher, higher quality. I’d put Michael Carrick above him, an unsung hero, while Louis Saha was unbelievable.’

During an interview with The News in May last year, former boss Redknapp described Diarra as ‘difficult to handle’.

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It’s an appraisal echoed by Adams, who would later manage the Frenchman, overseeing his departure for Real Madrid on January 1, 2009.

By that stage, an ankle injury had restricted Diarra to just 27 minutes in his last month-and-a-half at Fratton Park.

After 32 appearances and three goals, the 23-year-old embarked for Spain.

Adams said: ‘Lassie could be difficult, his mate Arnold Mvuemba was instrumental in handling him, he was a nice boy.

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‘You needed to be straight with him and put the evidence on the table.

‘In that Manchester United FA Cup quarter-final, he was by far our best player, he probably got the move to Real Madrid off the back of that game.

‘Certainly it wasn’t off the Manchester City match the following September when we lost 6-0!

‘Stephen Ireland ran all over him that day, absolutely ran all over him. Lassie did 300 metres high-intensity running – compared to 800 metres against Manchester United.

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‘There was a real attitude problem in there and I spoke to him about this on more than one occasion. You need to maintain those distances on a daily basis.

‘I told Lassie: “Look, if you continue to play like you did against Manchester City then you are going nowhere.

‘“You’ve come from Arsenal, you’re a Portsmouth star, but before long it will be Reading and then you’ll be out of the game.

‘“But continue to play how you did against Manchester United and that’s your level, you have the ability to play at that standard”.

‘I thought he was fantastic for us, but we were good for him too. We gave him the platform to go to Real Madrid, after all.’