22 April 2014

Abou impresses on debut; will he rise from the ashes?

It's been more than a year since we last saw Abou Diaby, having last appeared on 16 March 2013 against Swansea. Ever since, the debate over his future with the club was been almost as divisive as the one over Arsène's. With Diaby having made an impressive return with Arsenal's U21s, is there any chance we'll see his resurrection, even if it's only a symbolic one? After all, he did play 45 minutes in his first appearance since tearing that ACL, no mean feat, and by all accounts was impressive if not dominant. Assuming we can sew up fourth place (something that may have been just a bit easier with Everton losing Kevin Mirallas), the return of Abou "like a new signing" Diaby might be just around the corner.

First, the match itself. In many ways, it was an important match for the U21s. The loss means that they can't finish in the top of half of the table and will play in next season's second division. This means that our younger players will miss out on competing against the likes of the U21s at Chelsea, Liverpool, or Man U and instead will square off against others who finish in the bottom half, such as Reading, Stoke, Middlesbrough, and others. Whether this dampens enthusiasm or hampers development is an open question.

In the first half, with Diaby playing as a defensive midfielder, we took a 1-0 lead into halftime. It was after Diaby came off at the half that Chelsea went ahead, although I'm not suggesting a cause-and-effect relationship. Diaby, while not domineering, saw a lot of action and did look impressive. Keep in mind the contrasting factors: one, this was his first competitive action in over 13 months, and two, he was playing against boys. Those who might have expected him to simply have his way on the pitch are forgetting the first factor; those who demand his return to top-flight action ignore the second. For him to come back from ACL surgery is a massive task, but the early returns from this match suggest that he's made quite a bit of progress. He looked rusty, and he faded towards the end of the first half, but he also showed flashes, even stretches, of the kind of player he was, is, and might still be. With little more than four weeks left in our season, it might seem impossible or pointless to bring him back. Then again, if we can render a match or two inconsequential, let's see what he can do.

Speaking before the U21 match, Arsène was confident about Diaby's fitness and availability:
Yes, of course [he could play for the first team this season]; it depends how well he comes out of the game. He hasn't played for a year, but physically he is ready to play, completely. It is now just decision-making, getting used to challenges again. He needs a game.
Well, he had half of a game at the U21 level, and it was one that the squad knew it needed to win in order to stay in the top half and Chelsea wanted to win in order to enter the playoffs as league champs. The stakes might not have been at the same level of helping us finish fourth in the Prem, of course, but it was hardly a Sunday league game either.

In the past, I've suggested that the ACL injury might, ironically, be just the tonic that Diaby has needed ever since he first went down with the injury that first seemed to derail his career (the one from Sunderland's Dan Smith). Ever since then, Diaby has been plagued by so many injuries that it's easy to lose count. After he tore the ACL, I suggested that the severity of the injury and the length of the layoff might allow the rest of his body to heal all of the other sprains, strains, pulls, he's suffered and perhaps rushed back from. He's taken his first, tentative steps towards living up to that prediction, and even if there isn't quite enough time for him to make a full return, the early signs are that, when he does come back, he'll remind us of the player he's been, albeit all too rarely.

We've long-looked for Vieira's Heir, a big, dominant, swash-buckling box-to-box type who can lord it over the opposition. If Diaby can rejoin the first team and play as he was playing before again succumbing to injury, his wearing of the number four on Tuesday may look as symbolic as it gets.