One of the joys of European football is catching up with familiar faces who have slightly fallen off the radar since leaving England. This applies less to global stars like Gareth Bale and Luis Suárez, both of whom play for clubs who are always in the news, and more to foreign players with a quirky character, like the maverick talent who gains cultish adoration despite never quite living up to the hype, or the flop who disappears without a trace before surfacing again to complain about the food, the people and the weather in a scathing interview about his “English hell”.
For a reminder that a world exists far beyond the Premier League, look no further than Marseille’s comeback victory in their Europa League quarter-final against RB Leipzig. The French side had Kostas Mitroglou up front and there were more blasts from the past alongside the Fulham disappointment. Florian Thauvin, who once tried to dazzle Tyneside with the sartorial elegance of a tuxedo, scored in the 38th minute and Dimitri Payet, a hero at West Ham before his messy exit, grabbed the decisive goal with a lovely piece of skill.
The nostalgia flowed after Payet’s moment of magic and there was a similar feel at the Stadio Olimpico where Roma knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League two nights earlier, with Federico Fazio hitting a level of defensive excellence that always seemed beyond him at Tottenham and Aleksandar Kolarov and Edin Dzeko demonstrating there is life after Manchester City.
This is not about to become a critique of Pep Guardiola’s decision to sell Kolarov last summer, or of his failure to travel back in time to stop Dzeko leaving City in 2015. Yes, it was unfortunate Dzeko destroyed Barcelona on the same night his old side went out to Liverpool but on reflection it would be setting a dangerous precedent if Guardiola is forced to take the blame for things that happened before his arrival in Manchester. Where would it end? Soon he would be apologising for Jamie Pollock’s own goal and the signing of Rodney Marsh.
More to the point, Dzeko would probably be out of place in this City team. Target men rarely get Guardiola’s creative juices flowing. He flirted with the idea of having one at Barcelona, only to burn his fingers with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and he never really saw eye to eye with Robert Lewandowski at Bayern Munich. Dzeko, ultimately, probably would have been too traditional for Guardiola’s tastes. It is difficult to see him flourishing in City’s slick system.
Yet there is more than one way to play, even if Guardiola’s methods tend to be the most entertaining and sophisticated, and it was fascinating watching Dzeko destroy Barcelona, if only because it was hard to remember the Bosnian producing a performance of such power and intensity against that level of opposition for City. He scored his fair share of big goals during his time in England, including the equaliser that preceded Sergio Agüero’s title-winning strike against QPR in 2012, and he was a useful impact substitute. He helped City win trophies, scored 72 times in four and a half years and was appreciated by supporters. Yet there was always the sense of unfulfilled potential, more to come, a striker playing within himself and never quite convincing Roberto Mancini or Manuel Pellegrini he deserved to be a regular starter.
Dzeko, remember, was described as the new Marco van Basten when he joined City in January 2011. He had fired Wolfsburg to a historic Bundesliga title in 2009, was establishing himself as Bosnia-Herzegovina’s greatest goalscorer and looked capable of excelling in the Premier League. Yet if you want to understand why City decided to let Dzeko go, his record of three goals in four seasons in the Champions League is a good place to start.
His mojo seemed to have gone by the time he joined Roma and his first year in Serie A was a struggle. He scored 39 goals in all competitions in his second season, however, and has gone up a level this year, thriving at last in elite competition. He scored a special volley in the 3-3 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in October, hit the decisive goal in the last-16 victory against Shakhtar Donetsk and grabbed a lifeline for Eusebio Di Francesco’s side at the Camp Nou just over a fortnight ago.
But Dzeko’s best came in a way that his critics never imagined possible. In an interview with the Guardian’s Sasa Ibrulj last October, he railed against the idea that he does not work hard enough for the team. “Every match I give my very best,” he said. “Every single match.”
But those were just words. The real substance came when he rose to the occasion against Barcelona with a display of immense leadership, occupying Gerard Piqué and Samuel Umtiti with his strength and aerial prowess, scoring early before giving Roma’s comeback unstoppable momentum when he won a penalty in the second half.
Now, at the age of 32, Dzeko is in his first Champions League semi-final and it is strange to think the story would have taken a different direction if Chelsea had succeeded in bringing him back to the Premier League in January.
Olivier Giroud ended up at Stamford Bridge instead and made no impact when Chelsea lost to Barcelona last month. Dzeko must be relieved Roma stood firm. Italy suits him.