Young French forward Ousmane Dembele is “looking better every day”, Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said ahead of his debut on Saturday.
Dembele, 20, joined Barcelona for a Spanish record transfer fee of €105m ($125m) from Borussia Dortmund that could rise to 145m euros with add-ons.
The Catalan giants splashed out on Dembele to fill the gap left by Neymar’s world record €222m move to Paris Saint-Germain.
“It took him a bit of time to digest the deal,” Valverde said of Dembele ahead of the derby against city rivals Espanyol.
“He’s only 20 and there was a media barrage,” Valverde explained.
“It’s not like he was lost or anything but these things affect you. He needed time to settle and now he’s looking better every day.
“He’s more at ease in training and I think he’s ready, although I haven’t decided exactly which role he’ll play tomorrow.”
Dembele will form a fearsome forward line alongside five-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez as Barca aim to wrestle the Champions League and La Liga titles back from rivals Real Madrid.
“It’s great that all the transfers are out of the way and now we can concentrate on the team we have, I’m very happy with it,” Valverde added.
“We have a great team, one which should win some trophies.”
Dembele announced himself as one of Europe’s top prospects with a stellar season at Dortmund, scoring 10 goals, after joining from Rennes for just €15m a year ago.
Just over six years ago, Barcelona dismantled Manchester United in the Champions League Final at Wembley to claim their second European crown in the space of three seasons and earned widespread adulation as arguably the greatest team in history.
There were, of course, many great players in the Barca side which achieved those feats, with quality dripping through the ranks.
But three players stood out by themselves as the pulsating heartbeat, brilliantly combining to routinely produce mesmerising, dazzling football which took their team to new heights of elegance: the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi.
The latter has now departed, spending his final playing days in Qatar and preparing himself for a surely inevitable coaching return to Camp Nou. And fair enough – there’s nothing wrong with that.
Incredibly, however, although Messi and Iniesta are still at the club they both joined as boys they are also both inching closer and closer to leaving on a free transfer at the end of the current campaign.
Lionel Messi’s failure to sign a supposedly long-agreed contract extension is obviously worrying and has been well documented.
But in terms of how the club is currently being run, perhaps an even bigger concern is the mishandling of Iniesta’s future, which has been starkly illustrated this week by the club captain publicly contradicting his president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, over the state of his contract negotiations.
Bartomeu, playing a political card during an extremely awkward personal period, said a deal had been largely agreed; a few hours later, Iniesta said that is not true. Only one of them is telling the truth, and judging by his track record not many people would back Bartomeu to be that man.
What a squeamishly embarrassing situation for one of the world’s greatest sporting institutions to find itself in.
Allowing the club’s two most iconic figures to come within four months of being able to negotiate a free transfer departure is mismanagement on an epic scale, and it is surely no coincidence that both Messi and Iniesta have simultaneously refused to sign an extended deal.
Something is up, and that something is probably the future of Bartomeu, whose credibility in his role of club president is diminishing by the day.
So many bad things have happened to Barca during his reign, it makes you wonder exactly what would have to occur for Bartomeu to be ousted.
For starters, it should not be forgotten that Bartomeu only landed the position in the first place because his close friend Sandro Rosell was forced to resign over the club’s attempts to evade tax during the signature of Neymar.
Rosell is now in prison for a separate corruption scandal and at the very least, the current president is tarnished by his association with his shamed predecessor.
None of this has gone unnoticed by Barcelona’s most senior players, Iniesta and Messi, who obviously take great pride in the reputation of a club they have represented for well over a decade.
At the moment Barca’s image is being dragged through the dirt, and the refusal of those two emblematic figures to agree a contract with Bartomeu strongly suggests they do not like what they are seeing inside the club’s highest offices.
That’s especially the case as Bartomeu is now being formally challenged, with former presidential candidate Agusti Benedito launching a vote of no confidence which could ultimately lead to early elections and a new president.
Crucially, that new president could also be an old president: Joan Laporta, who was the man at the helm during the early days of Pep Guardiola’s magical reign with the Holy Trinity at the fore.
It’s widely known Messi and Iniesta still have a good relationship with Laporta, so it’s easy to draw the conclusion that their current stance – refusing to sign a new contract when Bartomeu is the man offering it – is an attempt to force internal change and bring back their man.
This weekend’s home game against Espanyol could provide strong clues about whether Benedito will be successful in his challenge to force early elections.
There were even outbreaks of ‘Bartomeu out’ chants during the unveiling of Ousmane Dembele a couple of weeks ago, when the stadium was three-quarters empty.
On Saturday night, with around 90,000 die-hards in attendance for a local derby and the first home game since Benedito launched his vote of no confidence, there’s potential for things to get much worse for Bartomeu.
Mutiny is in the air, and Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta are helping to fuel it.
Andres Iniesta’s Barcelona future is in doubt after the veteran playmaker claimed no agreement is in place for him to sign a new Nou Camp deal.
The 33-year-old star, whose current contract expires next summer, has been in talks with Barca over extending his 15-year stay with the club.
President Josep Maria Bartomeu has claimed new terms are on the table and have been agreed, but Iniesta refuted that when quizzed by journalists at a Barcelona airport.
With decreased playing time over the past two seasons, the World Cup winner is reportedly looking at other options come the end of the campaign.
Iniesta a su llegada al aeropuerto de Barcelona;
-¿Puedes confirmar el principio de acuerdo de renovación anunciado por Bartomeu?
— Ignacio Miguélez (@IgnacioMiguelez) September 6, 2017