Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen has already won Arsenal fans with his Premier League displays, and this evening he returns home to dispute his first ever UEFA Champions League encounter with the London outfit.
Antwerp is a city overflowing with precious stones, having made itself a global name in the international diamond trade, but not all of Antwerp's jewels can be passed through its four diamond bourses. Vermaelen is a high-grade, local gem of the footballing variety, born in the suburban outpost of Kapellen and raised through the ranks at Germinal Beerschot before making the short trip down the road to join prestigious Dutch neighbours Ajax at the age of 19. Still only 23, Vermaelen has taken just a few weeks to convince Premier League audiences of his attributes, with predecessor Kolo Toure now all but forgotten.
"Thomas has adapted to the Arsenal style and the team very quickly, and he will soon become one of the pillars of the club," Mikael Silvestre told FIFA.com. The Frenchman has had to content himself with life on the bench given the speed with which Vermaelen has settled, but he was happy to sing the Belgian international's praises. "He represents everything I love in a footballer. He doesn't speak very much but he's very convincing on the pitch. He possesses good vision and what a lot of people don't know is that he jumps very well, fantastically well. He's very good in the air."
Voted 'Player of the Month' for August by Arsenal's supporters, the centre-half has inspired a consensus among observers and there is no shortage of people ready to acclaim his immediate influence. Jean-François De Sart is another, the Belgium U-21 coach having trained the polite young footballer as Les Diablotins (Little Devils) reached the semi-finals of the 2007 UEFA European U-21 Championship and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. De Sart knows his subject well and is not in the least bit surprised by his former charge's successful start in England.
"He was ready to make that big jump," he said. "I knew he was going to make an impact very quickly because, in addition to being a super player, he's got impressive mental strength. He's a hard worker who has a perpetual desire to move forwards, while listening to the advice of others. He's motivated by the idea of making constant progress and growing step by step, stage by stage. He's a superb example for our youngsters and I invite the new generation that I'm training to follow his path in terms of how he has managed his career perfectly up until now."
Aged 19, Vermaelen left Germinal Beerschot for pastures new, Ajax having signed a partnership agreement with his local side. The promising youngster did not hesitate for a second before moving and, after making his Eredivisie debut in February 2004, he shared in his new team's title triumph three months later. The following season was spent on loan at Waalwijk, but Vermaelen returned to the Amsterdam Arena to find a starting berth waiting for him, and he made the post his own for the next four years while collecting two Dutch Cups along the way.
In March 2006, he added a first international cap to his list of landmarks, with coach Rene Vandereycken opting to use him at left-back. His ability to fit in wherever asked soon earned him recognition as a leader, both for his club and country. As Vandereycken says: "Despite his young age, he already has vast international experience. He's a true leader even if he's not the type to shout in the dressing room. He doesn't speak louder than the others but on the pitch he acts like a boss, particularly in terms of staying positive with his team-mates."
Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia feels much the same way, having explained in the English press that: "Thomas is extremely serene and he gives you the feeling he's been at the club for several years. He's very relaxed and that makes the defenders around him relaxed as well. We have confidence in him. He's calm but on the pitch he's tough."
Gunners left-back Gael Clichy echoed those thoughts. "I remember an argument between him and Robin van Persie during a European match two years ago because he was marking aggressively. That's necessary. To be a defender, you kind of need that in your game and he certainly has it."
Already a key figure for Arsene Wenger's troops, Vermaelen will this evening be their guide as well, as they commence their Champions League campaign on Belgian soil against Standard Liege at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne. The newcomer has no doubt passed on his inside knowledge and will strive to help his team-mates find their feet as quickly as possible, furthering the impression that Arsenal have found themselves a genuine leader for the challenges ahead.