Pjanic follows in Juninho's footsteps
There were those who felt that the departure of the Brazilian maestro Juninho Pernambucano following eight years’ good and loyal service would leave too great a void at the heart of the Lyon midfield. Yet within a matter of weeks, Miralem Pjanic had stepped up to the plate as Les Gones’ legend’s natural heir.
What is more, the Stade de Gerland has well and truly fallen under the spell of the 20-year-old Bosnian, who proved key in the elimination of Real Madrid’s second generation of Galácticos from this year’s UEFA Champions League. Before the gifted young string-puller was ready to give recitals at Lyon, however, Pjanic learned the necessary Ligue 1 theory in the colours of Metz.
This after taking his first steps on the footballing ladder in neighbouring Luxembourg, with his parents, both Bosnian Muslims, heading there to flee the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Boasting footballing genes thanks to father Fahrudin, who played third-tier football in his home country and at semi-pro level in Luxembourg, Pjanic’s progress through Metz’s junior ranks was as impressive as it was brief.
"He went straight from the national U-16 championship to Ligue 1 without having the slightest difficulty,” said Francis De Taddeo, head of Metz’s youth academy, on a player who made his first-team debut on 18 August 2007. “He is a pure talent, a real rough diamond.”
The compliment is all the more revealing for the fact it comes from a coach through whose hands jewels like Robert Pires, Louis Saha and Emmanuel Adebayor had passed previously.
The young Bosnian, who played several matches for Luxembourg’s U-17 and U-19 teams between 2004 and 2007, soon began setting the tone for Metz out on the pitch. Despite their prodigy’s efforts, however, Les Grenats were relegated in 2008 and were forced to part with the young playmaker, Lyon moving swiftly to secure his signature for a fee of €7.5m.
Coach Claude Puel’s initial aim was to let him develop gradually via regular outings alongside the veteran Juninho, the man he was intended to replace. Instead, his first campaign with Les Gones was ruined by a fractured fibula, forcing him to make do with a predominantly substitute role.
"Last season was really frustrating, but I’m determined to bounce back and show my worth,” said Pjanic ahead of the 2009/10 campaign, and he has been true to his word. Puel’s choice of a 4-3-3 formation has allowed the Bosnian to operate in his preferred role “just behind the attack”, a position which suits his technical ability and vision.
"Juninho is a great player who helped me a lot," said Pjanic of his former team-mate. "He is a example for me to follow. I called him to ask if he was happy for me to take his old No8 shirt, which is one of my favourite numbers. He told me there was no problem and that I shouldn’t put too much pressure on myself.”
The Bosnian’s free-kick against Anderlecht in the Champions League third qualifying round on 19 August last year, his first for the club, resembled something of a rite of passage. "I have to work hard to be like Juninho but I don’t want to compare myself to him,” said Pjanic, conscious of the fearsome reputation for set-piece mastery which his Brazilian predecessor had at Lyon.
"I just play my matches and try to score my free-kicks when the team gets them. I’m working hard on that because it’s one of my strong points. I play my own game but, of course, it is nice to be compared to a player of such standing. But now I have to back that up by continuing to produce good performances."
Though he sometimes exudes a casual air on the field of play, he is at the same time capable of popping up, resetting the tempo and turning a game on its head. This was the case at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Champions League Round of 16, where his goal earned a decisive 1-1 draw against Real Madrid – the fifth strike of a very memorable European campaign so far.
Though that crisp finish certainly raised his profile, Pjanic had attained star status in homeland Bosnia-Herzegovina long before the tie against Los Blancos. He made his international debut on 20 August 2008 but after an excellent qualifying campaign missed out narrowly on a trip to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ following the play-off defeat by Portugal.
Having recently turned 20 on 2 April, in between the two instalments of the all-French Champions League quarter-final against Bordeaux, Miré and Co celebrated the following day with a 2-1 win at Rennes that helped them leapfrog Les Girondins at the Ligue 1 summit.
Yet despite the signs pointing to a triumphant conclusion to the 2009/10 season, Lyon’s midfield orchestrator is determined not to let his success go to his head: “I’m not getting carried away. I know that the reason I’ve done well is down to the spirit in our group.” Skilful, down-to-earth and able to perform on the biggest stage, could Pjanic eventually eclipse Juninho in the hearts of the Gerland faithful?