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Is Benfica Adel Taarabt’s last chance at top level success?

There are few other players in world football that both delight and frustrate in equal measure more than Adel Taarabt. Mercurial, volatile, unpredictable, but unquestionably talented, Taarabt’s entire footballing career has been filled with flashes of brilliance and constant controversy. Tantrums, manager bust-ups, criticism of teammates, loan terminations and explosive interviews have tested the patience of numerous football clubs around Europe.
In June, his six year association with QPR finally came to an end as his contract was terminated by mutual consent, allowing him to complete a free transfer to Portuguese giants Benfica. There’s no questioning the talent he possesses but this may be Taarabt’s last chance to fulfil his undoubted potential in European football. The question is, which Adel Taarabt will we see at Benfica?

Adel Taarabt Benfica 2015Born in Morocco, Adel Taarabt moved to France at an early age and it didn’t take long for French side Lens to spot his talent and recruit him into their youth team. It was soon apparent that he had extraordinary natural ability. Even at a young age, Taarabt was truly audacious with the ball at his feet, able to dribble past players effortlessly, with superb vision and could score from seemingly anywhere. Having played a handful of games for RC Lens B, he made just a single senior appearance for Lens, during the 2006-07 season. Rumours spread throughout Europe about Adel Taarabt, the new Zinedine Zidane.

In January 2007, interest intensified as Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur all made moves to sign the teenager. However, as always with Taarabt, controversy inevitably followed. Damien Comolli, Arsenal’s chief scout at the time, had told Wenger about Taarabt and after a £3 million bid was accepted, Taarabt flew over to meet with Arsenal. With Taarabt’s heart seemingly set on moving to the Emirates, Comolli suddenly and controversially swapped Arsenal for Spurs, being appointed as Tottenham’s director of football. Comolli, together with the then Spurs manager Martin Jol, persuaded him to move to White Hart Lane instead, despite his friends Abou Diaby and Armand Traore advising him not to do so.

Tottenham Hotspur signed Taarabt, initially on loan, in January 2007 and then made it permanent in June that same year for £3 million. It proved to be a poor decision for Taarabt, as over the next two seasons, the Moroccan only played 7 times for Spurs. His development was curtailed by numerous managerial changes, including the sacking of Martin Jol and Juande Ramos, as the club continued to underachieve.  Such was his frustration, in March 2010 he admitted that “The big mistake was to sign for Tottenham and not go to another club when I first came over.”

In March 2009 Tottenham’s latest manager, Harry Redknapp, immediately recognised Taarabt’s talent but decided that it would be best for his development to play regular football with Queens Park Rangers in the Championship. His time at QPR didn’t start well as he only managed 7 appearances and 1 goal before his loan deal was cut short by a knee injury. Taarabt then rejoined QPR for the 2009-10 season and finally was about to show the world what he was capable of.

In October 2009 versus Preston North End, Taarabt scored arguably one of the best goals in the league’s history. Controlling the ball in his own half, Taarabt drove through the Preston defence, beating players with skill, power and pace, before casually nutmegging a defender and curling the ball into the top corner from 30 yards. He went on to have a strong season, scoring 7 goals and making a total of 41 appearances as the club finished mid table, when many predicted QPR for relegation.

Taarabt was starting to show the kind of form that led him to being tipped as the next Zinedine Zidane, being able to express himself and play regularly was clearly getting the best out of the hugely talented Moroccan. In August 2010, QPR acted quickly and snapped him up for a meagre £1 million, even though Taarabt insisted he had contact from Barcelona and Real Madrid about a transfer.

In the 2010-11 season, Adel Taarabt had the season of his life. He dominated defences across the country and almost single handedly, dragged an unfancied Queens Park Rangers side into the Premier League.  I struggle to recall, apart from Lionel Messi & Cristiano Ronaldo in La Liga, a player dominate a league season in the way that Adel Taarabt did in 2010-11. His form was nothing short of sensational, moments of pure genius, audacious trickery and ridiculous goals helped make Taarabt the best player in the division. He finished the season as club captain, with 19 goals in 44 appearances, winning the ‘Championship Player of The Year’ award and a place in the ‘Championship’s best XI’.

Things were looking good for Taarabt and QPR, they were back in the Premier League and the Moroccan seemed content as last. However, disaster was just around the corner as in July 2011, Paris Saint Germain came calling. Having recently taken over by Qatari owners, they made it clear that signing Taarabt was a priority for their project. The clubs were in negotiations over a fee in excess of £15 million and Taarabt had his heart set on a switch to Paris. That was until Leonardo, PSG’s director of football, attempted to push Taarabt’s asking price down by highlighting his “erratic behaviour”. QPR refused to lower the asking price and Leonardo responded by withdrawing PSG’s interest in Taarabt. To compound matters, Taarabt was then stripped of the club’s captaincy in favour of new signing Joey Barton, a decision brought on by speculation about his future at the club.

Angry and unsettled by his failed move to PSG, his first season in the Premier League with QPR was a huge disappointment, making only 24 appearances and scoring just 2 goals. Taarabt was also showing his unpredictable and volatile nature as he stormed out of the stadium at half time after a row with QPR manager, Neil Warnock, after being substituted in the 6-0 defeat to Fulham. This also led to criticism from club captain Joey Barton who said, “He was told he was a genius; I’ve yet to see it, and I don’t know whether that’s because he doesn’t work hard enough or whether he tends to sulk. I’m happy that he’s upset really because it shows he does care, but there’s a way of doing it.”

However, things were about to improve. Neil Warnock was replaced by Mark Hughes in January 2012 and this led to an upturn in both form and confidence, including a brilliant scoring performance against Arsenal and a sensational free kick against Tottenham towards the end of the season. In July 2012, just a year after he looked set to leave for PSG, Taarabt signed a new 3 year contract at QPR. He praised Mark Hughes and revealed his excitement at the club’s ambition, “I had a tough start to last season, but I worked hard and I have really enjoyed it under Mark Hughes, Last year the aim was to stay in the Premier League. We achieved this and now we want to progress and improve. Nobody is speaking about what we can achieve but we really want to move up the Premier League.”

In the 2012-13 season, the Moroccan genius was back. He scored his first goal of the season against West Ham in October, a sensational curling finish that flew in the top corner from 25 yards after he’d effortlessly beat two players with his now trademark trickery. Another managerial change came in November 2012 as Mark Hughes was replaced by the familiar face of Harry Redknapp, previously of Spurs. Redknapp described Taarabt’s performance against Fulham in December 2012 as “one of the all-time great performances” scoring both goals, including an audacious outside of the boot finish from 25 yards to win the game. Taarabt was having a good season, but QPR were struggling and even he couldn’t stop them from being relegated to the Championship. Even though his season was hampered by injury niggles, he still managed to make 34 appearances, scoring 5 goals and providing 5 assists.

After QPR’s relegation, Taarabt made the difficult decision to leave Loftus Road and join Premier League side Fulham on loan or the 2013-14 season. He would join up with Martin Jol, the manager who helped bring him to Tottenham. The Moroccan’s loan deal would eventually be terminated in January 2014 as he fell completely out of favour at Craven Cottage, accusations that he had lost focus were rife and he was not putting in the kind of performances that were expected. Then came a shock short term loan move to Italian giants AC Milan in January, where he showed glimpses of genius, including a fine solo effort against Napoli just 8 minutes into his debut. Having made 16 appearances and scoring 4 goals, he returned to QPR for the 2014-15 season.

The 2014-15 season would be a low point in Adel Taarabt’s career. In October 2014, Harry Redknapp was asked why Taarabt wasn’t included in the squad for their 3-2 defeat to Liverpool, he proceeded to launch an astonishing rant at the Moroccan, “He played in a reserve team game the other day, and I could have run about more than he did. So no, I can’t pick him.” He also claimed that Taarabt was “three stone overweight” and “he’s not fit to play football”. Taarabt responded furiously, doing an interview for a major newspaper, showing off his trim physique and saying about Redknapp, “Harry is not a bad person but he is a very bad coach and, for me, a very bad manager”. Taarabt featured sporadically that season, making only 10 appearances, but only after Redknapp was replaced by Chris Ramsey. QPR would eventually finish bottom of the Premier League, again suffering relegation.

Now Adel Taarabt embarks on a new chapter in his career, a Portuguese adventure with Benfica, where he will be expected to lead the club to the League title. Very different pressures to what he has experienced so far, but if new Benfica boss Rui Vitória shows him respect, plays him regularly and keeps faith in Taarabt’s talent, it may just be a match made in heaven. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m just a hopeless football romantic, but when I see Adel Taarabt happy and in top form, he really is a genius at work. His talent is enormous and he really can reach the very top, if he’s managed correctly. I dearly hope that, for his and Benfica’s sake, he can make his mark on European football once again.


Written by Nathan Bliss

Nathan Bliss

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