A solid, reassuring presence in the Olympique de Marseille back line, Souleymane Diawara is also just the type of fun, positive character every winning squad needs. Uncompromising in his desire to get to every ball first, the Senegal defender can also make life hell for opposing strikers.
Diawara intends to show both facets to his personality in the second leg of OM’s Round-of-16 tie against Manchester United on Tuesday 15 March. His rugged qualities will be required first, as he repels Rooney and Co, before he gets to show his more joyful side and lead the celebrations as his team qualify for the last eight of the competition.
That is the plan at least, but Diawara is well aware of the challenge ahead: “We know we have a mountain to climb. We know how hard it's going to be, but the upside is we can just go there and play our natural game, free of pressure,” the Senegalese told FIFA.com. Reflecting on the 0-0 draw in the first leg, Diawara said “We are glad we're still in the tie and didn’t concede, but we do feel slightly disappointed because we didn’t really go for it up front.”
The former Bordeaux defender is clearly relishing playing on Europe’s greatest stage: "United’s strikers are among the best in the world. It’s brilliant to come up against the likes of Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Nani. I view this sort of match as a chance to test myself against the best, and when I do well it gives me confidence for the rest of the season.”
Memories of England
Alongside fellow central defender Stephane Mbia, Diawara was rarely troubled in Marseille: "It was great we kept them at arm’s length in the first leg, but there’s no way we’ll be able to do that at Old Trafford. They need to score and they will have their fans behind them. We'll to need to be twice as focused, give it absolutely everything and make sure we aren’t left with any feelings of regret come the end of the match.”
Indeed, regrets are something Souley could be forgiven for having a few of when it comes to England. After breaking through at Le Havre and then establishing himself over the course of three solid seasons at Sochaux, he spent a season in the Premier League with Charlton Athletic in 2006. Despite performing well in 26 appearances, Diawara played under three different coaches before the club was relegated at the end of the season. "Actually I learnt a lot that year,” he recalls. “First off I had to really fight for recognition. I was in a foreign country, where people spoke a foreign language, I was on my own and I had to give it my all. When you do that just to survive, it actually makes it easier on the pitch. I probably got my will to win and fighting spirit from my time over there."
Might-have-beens and solid achievements
The Addicks fought to keep him but when Laurent Blanc, the newly named coach at Bordeaux, came calling, Diawara felt the time was right to return to France. "I had been contacted by various Premier League clubs, but the coach, Alan Pardew, really wanted to keep me and did what he could to prevent me from going to another club. But there was no way I was going to play in the second division. I didn’t go to England for that. He made it hard for me, and that’s why I didn’t sign elsewhere, but that’s all in the past. I have no idea where I would be playing had I stayed in England, but given where I’ve ended up I can’t have any regrets.”
That is certainly a fair assessment given that Souley has won the French league two years straight, first for Bordeaux and then last season with Marseille. His OM side are into the final of the League Cup and fancy their chances of upsetting the odds in Manchester to secure their place among Europe’s top eight clubs.