You wouldn’t thought Mahmadou Diarra hadn’t played a first-team game for sixteen months judging by his impact at Aston Villa on Saturday. His anticipation, composure, that familiar range of passing that belies the common description of him as a defensively-minded midfield player, and his stamina were in all in evidence. This wasn’t a rampaging performance to inspire, but a controlled, intelligent display to marvel at. Much like the man himself, it was considered and understated. When Fulham’s midnight hour arrived, Diarra delivered.
Diarra’s desire is unquestionable. After a decorated career, which saw him grace the grandest of stages for Real Madrid, the lure of representing his native Mali again after impressing for Fulham under Martin Jol proved too great. A serious knee injury that he couldn’t shake off was the price of a return to international football – but Diarra refused to give in. He broke down two or three times during his long lay-off from injury, which meant Jol couldn’t justify keeping him on at the end of last season. Undeterred, Diarra continued to train at Motspur Park, hoping to earn a second chance.
Rene Meulensteen was rather blunt in his assessment of Diarra’s chances of making it back, but Felix Magath – a man who sets great store in hard work – recognised a kindred spirit. A short-term, pay-as-you-play deal was the veteran’s reward, but still the whispers remained about whether he was up to it. An unused substitute against Everton – when you felt his combative qualities could have proved useful, especially after Ashkan Dejagah’s thunderbolt hauled Fulham level – Diarra instead got his opportunity at Villa Park and how he seized it.
Many months ago Diarra’s undoubted class was keeping Steve Sidwell out of the side and here he was partnering one of Fulham’s performers of the season in a crucial clash. The combination worked well: Sidwell all hustle and bustle, scampering around the midfield in a high-octane, energetic effort, Diarra sitting deeper protecting Fulham’s fragile defence. He was eager to receive possession, showing for the ball in front of the back four, and always looking for a forward pass – a welcome change as Fulham’s overworked midfielders have often ceded territory in favour of retaining possession over the past few months.
There was a snappiness about his play too. You winced when he went to try and win the ball for fear of those knees failing again, but his experience and calm demeanour counted for plenty as that far-too-open second half wound on. He kept the ball almost with ease at crucial moments and underlined just how badly a struggling side has missed a player of his ilk. A far more precise passer than Sidwell, Kvist or Parker, Diarra offers a different dimension in midfield, much more cultured than the conventional stoppers that he has replaced.
His part in that dramatic winner shouldn’t go unnoticed every. Lewis Holtby’s desire to win can’t be question – he appears to have developed a real affinity with a club he only joined on loan in January – but his delivery from dead-ball situations was poor on Saturday. His second chance to cross for Rodallega’s deft header came about only through Diarra’s excellent interception of a Villa clearance and precise pass out wide. It happened so swiftly that Villa’s defensive line couldn’t push out far enough – and that goal has clearly breathed new life into Fulham’s survival fight.
With Diarra’s injury record, it is dangerous to wax too lyrical about a single performance, but his return to the first team is so welcome. An intelligent passer who does the simple things so well, he is proof of that old adage about form being temporary and class proving permanent.