Three weeks ago, Stoke played away at Everton and, featuring in the squad for the first time this season and going straight into Tony Pulis’s starting line-up was the veteran centre midfielder Salif Diao. The 32 year-old Senegal international had been ruled out with a string of injuries, and many Stoke fans considered him to be well past his best, so Pulis’s selection that day certainly raised a few eyebrows. The doubters were proved wrong, Diao played well as the Potters earned a very respectable draw. Two weeks later, Diao shone again in our home victory over West Ham, and on Saturday he was arguably the best player on the pitch as we stunned White Hart Lane with an unlikely win at Tottenham.
Diao’s added strength to the spine of our side, and his superb tackling is a real asset in a player in the holding midfield role he looks set to make his own once again. He’s also good in the air, but, most importantly for me, his passing has catalysed our recent change in fortunes. Too often from Stoke players, we see good opportunities to put together a fast break squandered because of a poor pass, often meaning the players getting forward have to check, allowing opposing defenders to get back. Diao’s vision is excellent, and his forward passes are always that, passes forward of the man they are aimed at, allowing him to run onto the ball and allowing the attack to retain its momentum. A fine example of this was for our second goal against West Ham, when Diao’s ball into the space ahead of Ricardo Fuller allowed the Jamaican striker to run at full pace at West Ham’s Matthew Upson, beat him and set up a goal for strike partner James Beattie. It’s no surprise that it was a ball from Diao to Fuller that started the move that led to Glenn Whelan’s winning goal at Spurs.
Diao is back playing the way that earned him so many plaudits when he first joined Stoke on loan from Liverpool in October 2006. His calm quality then re-vitalised our fortunes, as we went from a side languishing in the bottom six to one that narrowly missed out on the play-offs on the final day of the season with Diao in the side. He is a player that seems to lift his teammates; the statistics speak for themselves. This season without Diao we gained eight points from seven Premier League games. With him we’ve won seven from three. By all accounts, he’s an excellent figure in the dressing room, and the club’s newly established links with his own youth academy back in Senegal are playing an important part of our attempts to branch out globally.In short, Diao is a very good player to have at the club. The amazing thing is, he came very lose to leaving in the summer. He was widely criticised for his performances last season, earning the cruel nickname “the crab” from fans, because of his perceived inability to move forwards, only from side to side. Out of contract, he was reportedly close to agreeing to join Championship strugglers Derby, and was also linked with clubs in France and Italy. Eventually, he was offered a new one year deal at Stoke and chose to stay on. Recently he’s proved that that was a very wise move from the club. Watching Diao the last few matches has been like watching the inspirational and battle-hardened general that we first saw three years ago, with Diao performing at a level we were sure he was no longer capable of attaining. Long may it continue.