For a man possessing feet protected by The Magic Circle, 225 minutes of Champions League football is a mystifying return.
But, five years after bowing out of the competition with AC Milan, Adel Taarabt is finally back breaking defenders’ hearts and ankles.
Milan’s two-legged last 16 defeat against Atletico Madrid in 2014 represented Taarabt’s first- and, until Wednesday night, last- taste of Champions League football.
It would prove be a bitter experience. By the time the Moroccan international was hooked at half time of the second leg Milan were already trailing 3-1 on aggregate, with Diego Costa and Arda Turan tearing a Milan defence unrecognisable from the days of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Alessandro Nesta to shreds.
That the freak-footed Taarabt was making his Champions League bow at the relatively late age of 24 spoke to the absurd nature of his career.
Lens, Spurs, QPR and Fulham all experienced the thrill of watching a truly natural street footballer evoke images of Zinedine Zidane with a roulette turn and R9 with a flip-flap nutmeg, coupled with the frustration of putting up with performances that wouldn’t look out of place in testimonials.
But that’s all in the past now. A past since containing a spell twiddling his thumbs in Benfica’s B side and something of a renaissance in Serie A at Genoa.
When Taarabt took to the pitch for Benfica against RB Leipzig wearing the no.49 shirt- presumably a reference to the number of lives he’d been awarded- all was forgotten.
How can you not fall in love with a player who seemingly prefers nutmegging an opponent in his own six-yard box to scoring a hat-trick?
It didn’t take Taarabt, operating as a traditional central midfielder, long to shake off the Champions League rust.
With the ball played into Taarabt’s feet deep in his own half and seemingly no pass available to ease the pressure, Leipzig defender Konrad Laimer smelled blood. The Austrian rushed in, only to be left nose-to-grass by a drop of the shoulder and shift of the feet.
Yussuff Poulsen, unwittingly finding himself the nearest opponent not on his knees, wafted a leg in Taarabt’s general direction but may as well have been back in Leipzig by the time the Moroccan was finished executing a skill two-parts Cruyff Turn and one-part Zizou roulette.
But this wasn’t the Taarabt of old. His performance against Leipzig is unlikely to satisfy the YouTube compilation compilers’ thirst for pointless flicks to run alongside their Dirty Dutch House soundtracks.
Taarabt covered more ground than any other player on the pitch, aside from Leipzig midfielder Diego Demme. His distance of 11.39km was well above Benfica’s average of 10.56km which, given he was the second-oldest outfield player on show, is no mean feat.
Only Leipzig full-back Nordi Mukiele completed more interceptions on the night- another sign of his willingness to contribute going back towards his own goal.
He was sensible in possession too. No midfielder on either side had a better pass completion rate.
That’s not to say Taarabt is a full convert to the dark arts of the defensive midfielder. His tally of six completed dribbles was double that of the second-highest dribbler, Leipzig’s highly-rated schemer Emil Forsberg.
However, this version of Taarabt isn’t the one Lens, Spurs, QPR, Fulham, Milan and Genoa fans came to know and love/hate.
There was a hint of Mousa Dembele in the way that Taarabt combined impressive physicality with ballet dancer’s feet, willing the opponent to get tight so he could swat them away and drive forward.
For all his effort, Taarabt it still waiting for his first taste of victory in Europe’s elite competition as Timo Werner’s double ensured Leipzig took the three points back to Germany.
But, win or lose, the Champions League is a better place for having Taarabt in it, and not before time.
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