Three years ago, Laurent Koscielny was preparing to make a big step up: he had just completed a transfer from Tours FC of the French second tier to top-flight outfit FC Lorient. The rugged centre-back has not stopped climbing the football ladder ever since.
One outstanding campaign in Brittany was enough to convince Arsène Wenger to bring him to north London, where he initially showed promise before truly excelling last term as Arsenal FC's most used and arguably most consistent defender. Laurent Blanc rewarded the 26-year-old for his outstanding form by handing him a first France cap against the United States last November, then named the pacy, tenacious stopper as one of only three centre-backs in his UEFA EURO 2012 squad.
A suspension for Philippe Mexès means Koscielny's inexorable rise should continue on Saturday when he is expected to make his competitive international bow in the quarter-finals against Spain. Not that he seems at all fazed by the thought of taking on Andrés Iniesta and friends in the biggest game of his career so far. Having spent several years fighting his way through the lower leagues, he simply wants to savour the occasion. "Ever since I left Tours, I've had a positive attitude," Koscielny told UEFA.com. "I had some difficult times at the beginning of my career. I know it's not easy to be a footballer. Your career can be over very quickly – or it can go the other way. So I'm trying to enjoy every moment."
If Blanc had any doubts about bringing the inexperienced defender to Poland and Ukraine, he would surely have been reassured by his commanding displays for the Gunners in the UEFA Champions League over the last two seasons. "I'm fortunate to be playing for a very prestigious club," the defender mused. "I give my all every weekend so that I can continue playing in and enjoying the big games – especially the Champions League games against Europe's very best teams. I'm just really happy to have this job."
Koscielny nevertheless had a bumpy ride in his first Premier League campaign. Indeed, life in England got off to an inauspicious start when received his marching orders away to Liverpool FC after handling the ball as a certain Fernando Torres raced past him. "My memories of that game are mixed," he said. "I was making my debut in a legendary stadium and we got a good draw, but I was sent off at the end." Torres has since joined Chelsea FC, where he has been less prolific, yet Koscielny will not be taking the Spaniard lightly at the Donbass Arena. "Torres is a great player and a great goalscorer. Great strikers never die," he warned. "They sometimes fall asleep for a bit, but they wake up sooner or later."
Torres will not be the only familiar Spanish face for France's No21 in Donetsk. Koscielny's first captain at Arsenal, Cesc Fàbregas, may also line up for the opposition – and the Frenchman is looking forward to catching up with the FC Barcelona midfielder. "Cesc's a great player," he enthused. "He's skilful and reads the game well. It'll be nice to see him. I'll try to talk to him before and after, but our friendship will be put to one side during the match."
The last time Koscielny faced Spanish opposition, Fàbregas was lining up alongside him. Although Arsenal lost on aggregate to Barcelona on that occasion, their rookie centre-back played superbly well and says he will draw on that experience on Saturday. "Many of Spain's players are from Barcelona," he noted. "I'm familiar with their style and that could help. I know it won't be easy against the European champions, but we have our own qualities. I hope the best team wins." Whatever happens, Koscielny will savour the moment.
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