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Jan 7, 2014

Lacina Traore - the capricious and talented 'sleeping giant'

Diving is one of the hottest topics in the Premier League right now. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho feels free to criticise Liverpool's Luis Suarez while protecting his own player Ramires, whereas Manchester United fans grow increasingly frustrated with the antics of Ashley Young and Adnan Januzaj. West Ham have been rather quiet on that front so far, but that may change if the proposed loan of Lacina Traore from Monaco is completed as expected. Football lovers in Russia will readily tell you that the Ivorian striker is prone to falling to the ground all too easily.

The most famous affair so far occurred on the opening day of the current Russian season, when Anzhi Makhachkala, considered title favourites before owner Suleiman Kerimov abruptly curtailed the project a few weeks later, hosted Lokomotiv Moscow. In injury time, just after Roman Pavlyuchenko had scored a dramatic equaliser, Traore theatrically hit the deck in the penalty area to the surprise of Croatian defender Vedran Corluka. Amazingly, the referee pointed to the spot, but justice was done when Samuel Eto'o missed the resulting kick.

Naturally, sometimes such tactics don't work and it actually hurt Traore's team. Last season, the Ivorian was sent off in a Europa League defeat at Young Boys, receiving his second booking for diving. Unfortunately, this was not the only red card in his career. The 23-year-old was sent for an early bath three times in two seasons when playing for CFR Cluj in Romania, getting a two-game suspension for one of the offences, which almost broke his opponent's foot, while he was dismissed in the Russian Cup tie with Ural last season for a Nigel de Jong-on-Xabi Alonso-style tackle. His disciplinary record, with 24 yellow cards in 111 career league games so far, is hardly impressive.

Having said that, Monaco's decision to sign Traore on a four-and-a-half-year contract last week is an indicator of his raw potential, although they also intend to loan him out straight away. The Ivorian is a talented and somewhat unique striker; at 203 centimetres, he is taller even than Peter Crouch, but possesses a very good touch on the ground, as Liverpool witnessed when he scored a glorious goal against them last season, in Anzhi's 1-0 Europa League win.

His left-footed shots are thunderous, he is pacy and physically powerful, while, quite bizarrely for such a lanky player, heading is arguably his biggest weakness, as he himself readily agrees. Overall, we are dealing with a very unusual player who easily stands out and that is how he was discovered, in his homeland Ivory Coast, in the first place.

Traore grew up in the famous ASEC Mimosas academy, established by Arsene Wenger's close friend Jean-Marc Guillou, but contrary to many successful students he was never directly offered to a European club. CFR Cluj president Iuliu Muresan found the 17-year-old playing on the streets of Abidjan, and just couldn't resist the temptation to find out more about him. It turned out that Traore was available for virtually no transfer fee.

Upon arriving in Romania, Lacina revealed his family background. He has 17 brothers and sisters because his father had four wives, while his height is largely thanks to his mother's genes -- apparently his maternal grandfather was even taller.

After spending the first season on the bench, Traore became an important part of the team that won the championship title in 2010 under Andrea Mandorlini, who is currently doing very well at Hellas Verona. The Italian rated the young striker highly. "He is fast as a gazelle and possesses great technical abilities", Mandorlini said, predicting that his protege would end up playing for Arsenal or Manchester United.

However, such praise was probably unwise, especially as the stats were not outstanding, with just six goals in 25 league appearances.

Believing he was already a big star, Traore quickly became unsettled in Cluj. With various alleged offers discussed in the press -- Bayern Munich, Napoli, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Inter and so on -- the Ivorian stated that he had decided to leave the club. "I can't spend all my life here," claimed the 19-year-old prodigy. It clearly wasn't the best way to endear himself to the fans.

The club tried to prevent him from leaving too soon, but his behaviour became difficult at times. It was not just the red cards, but his selfishness in front of goal, with the worst moment arriving in a Champions League games against AS Roma. On a counterattack, Traore decided to shoot instead of passing the ball to a teammate who was certain to score. Muresan and his board had always tried to protect the player, but in the end it became impossible.Traore eventually moved on. Yet despite all the rumours linking him with various clubs, he eventually headed for modest Russian outfit Kuban Krasnodar, then coached by Romanian Dan Petrescu, in the beginning of 2010. Juande Ramos, for example, refused to sign him for Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.

Traore's first season in Russia yielded 18 league goals in 35 games, but his game lacked stability. Unplayable in some matches, he was poor and wasteful in others, and even Petrescu tended to criticise him, claiming after the game against Lokomotiv in March 2012: "He probably feels that his place in the starting lineup is safe, and that makes him less ambitious."

Having moved to Anzhi for a cool 18 million euros, Traore's form continued to be very unpredictable. Interestingly, when asked about his favourite way to spend his spare time, Traore answers that he likes to sleep. There is nothing wrong with that -- in fact, that was the favourite pastime of Stephane Chapuisat, one of the most lethal strikers in the Bundesliga in the 90s. However, the feeling is that the Ivorian sometimes goes to sleep during the games as well, and the motivation issue is of extreme importance. That's why some Anzhi fans unfairly suspected that recent injuries, which prevented him from playing after the team sold all its best players, were not real.

Will Traore be motivated enough at Upton Park? That is the biggest question. In September, Petrescu, who is still close to the player and now working at Dinamo Moscow, claimed that the Ivorian will move to Juventus in January. He will find himself at West Ham instead, knowing only too well that it is a temporary stop. The striker has always claimed that he dreams of playing in the Premier League, but added that it should be a top club that plays in the Champions League.

Talented Ivorian strikers tend to be automatically labelled the next Didier Drogba, as is the case with CSKA Moscow's Seydou Doumbia and Swansea's Wilfried Bony. Traore, however, was always compared with Emmanuel Adebayor. Technically supreme despite his height and a natural scorer, he is moody, sometimes reckless, and happy to move from club to club.

Is that the kind of player required to fight against relegation? West Ham fans would probably prefer someone with the attitude of Carlos Tevez, who saved them from the drop almost single-handedly in 2007. Traore is completely different, but if Sam Allardyce manages to find a way to awaken him, the Hammers might yet enjoy his special talents during the next four months.