It’s fair to say that not every Barcelona fan was delighted when their club forked out €40 million (Dh176.3m) this summer to secure the signing of Paulinho.
A 29-year-old arriving from the Chinese Super League who previously flopped at Tottenham was not exactly what Blaugrana fans had in mind to rejuvenate their midfield, and Paulinho was subjected to more than his fair share of criticism when the deal was confirmed.
Just a few weeks later, however, the Brazilian international has already succeeded in changing quite a few minds and given a clear indication that he could well, after all, make a significant contribution.
After coming off the bench to score a crucial winner at Getafe last Saturday, Paulinho was handed his first start for Tuesday night’s visit of Eibar and, although the game was chiefly notable for Lionel Messi’s latest burst of genius, he didn’t let anyone down.
Firstly, Paulinho showed off his set piece prowess by netting for the second consecutive game with a thumping header direct from Denis Suarez’s corner.
And he really came to life in the second half, contributing amply to Barca’s destruction of the Basque visitors by assisting one of Messi’s goals and helping to create Denis Suarez’s strike with a cheeky nutmeg for Messi to run onto.
2 – Paulinho has scored two goals for Barcelona with his first two shots on target (all competitions). Impact.
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 19, 2017
Indeed, even more than Paulinho’s goals, the most encouraging thing about his performance was the way he seems to be quickly developing an understanding with Messi, who appears to be enjoying the opportunity to benefit from the powerful runs of a muscular midfielder whose skill set is starkly different to any of his team-mates.
However, before we get carried away and hail Paulinho as Barca’s saviour, we should also acknowledge the other side of the coin – as did manager Ernesto Valverde after Tuesday’s game, when he admitted Paulinho had looked “lost” in a first half dominated in large part by Eibar.
The truth is that Paulinho only started to shine after the break, when Eibar started to tire both mentally and physically, and therefore allowed big spaces to appear for the Brazilian to surge into.
Not many of Barca’s games will be played out in such an open fashion. The majority will be far more tentative affairs, with space at a premium against opponents who defend the edge of their penalty area rather than allowing the game to be played in the whole pitch as Eibar did.
And in this aspect of the game, as Valverde noted, the jury is still out on Paulinho, who was conspicuous by his absence rather than a shining star during his side’s troubles during the first half.
Paulinho in LaLiga for Barcelona:
3 aerial duels won
Proving his worth. 👊 pic.twitter.com/TJJMrypnED
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 20, 2017
It’s eternally hard to escape the impression that Paulinho is in many ways antithetical to a Barcelona midfielder.
Whereas the team’s recent greatness was built around the slender frames but flawless techniques of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who turned the ability to maintain possession in confined areas into an art form, Paulinho is the exact opposite with his barnstorming runs and thumping headers.
Of course, that’s exactly why he has been signed – because he possesses attributes that nobody else in the squad has.
But in the same way the team will have to adapt to Paulinho, he will also have to adapt to the team. And although he’s made a very good start – better than anyone expected – much more difficult tests lie in wait.
Barcelona hope record signing Ousmane Dembele could be back in action in three and a half months after successful surgery on a torn hamstring in Helsinki on Tuesday.
“Dembele was successfully operated on Tuesday to repair a ruptured biceps femoris in his left leg,” Barca said in a statement.
“He is expected to be out for three and a half months.”
The Catalan giants feared their record signing could be sidelined for four months after suffering the injury attempting a backheel in Saturday’s 2-1 win at Getafe.
It is the first major injury of Dembele’s career and Barca boss Ernesto Valverde admitted a more experienced player may have picked up on signs all wasn’t well before completely tearing the muscle.
“He doesn’t have experience of recognising small niggles or more explosive moves that can mitigate these type of things,” Valverde said on Monday.
“A backheel is the most aggressive move for the hamstring. Possibly a more experienced player wouldn’t have done it.”
The 20-year-old may have paid a heavy price for missing most of his pre-season preparation as he went on strike from training at Borussia Dortmund to try and force through his dream move to the Camp Nou.
He will be sidelined for the rest of Barca’s Champions League group campaign and faces a race against time to take part in the first Clasico of the season against Real Madrid on December 23.
Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde is confident he is not short of options to replace injured record-signing Ousmane Dembele as the Catalan giants look to continue their 100 per cent start to the season against Eibar on Tuesday.
Dembele, a £96.8million buy from Borussia Dortmund this summer, limped out of Saturday’s 2-1 win over Getafe in the first half after suffering a hamstring injury.
The 20-year-old France international will undergo surgery in Helsinki on Tuesday and is set to be sidelined for up to four months.
That is a significant blow for Barca, who signed Dembele to help cover the loss of star forward Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain, but Valverde says there are several players who can fill the void.
He told a press conference on Monday: “We have various players, (Gerard) Deulofeu, Aleix Vidal, Denis (Suarez), Andre (Gomes)…we will look for alternatives to play in the first XI. We will also take Barca B into account.”
Valverde also shrugged off speculation in Spain that Dembele might have been struggling with the problem during the pre-match warm-up at Getafe, or as a result of the Coliseum Alfonso Perez pitch.
However, the Barca boss did suggest a more experienced player might have avoided the injury, with Dembele’s final involvement in the match being a back-heel to a team-mate near the corner flag.
Valverde said: “He’s a player who has never had a muscular problem, he has no experience of recognising when you have a small niggle.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) September 18, 2017
“To do a back-heel is the worst, the most aggressive, thing you can do to the hamstring. It’s not normal but it can happen. A more experienced player maybe would have let the ball go out.”
Barca’s comeback win at Getafe left them top of LaLiga with 12 points from four games, two points clear of second-placed Sevilla and four above defending champions Real Madrid.
Valverde hopes they can continue their winning streak against 13th-placed Eibar, but had a warning for his players.
He added: “It’s a different game to what we’ve had up until now. They will try to press us up high up. They’re a team who steal possession a lot on opposing grounds and who read the second ball very well.”
Eibar coach Jose Luis Mendilibar knows his side are massive underdogs but is taking confidence from their visit to the Nou Camp in the final game of last season.
In that match, Eibar were leading 2-0 but four goals in the final 27 minutes saw Barca escape with a 4-2 victory, and Mendilibar said: “We played a great game, but the result was the same as always.
“We were winning until the last half-hour and in the end they scored four times.
“We’re going there with high hopes, but it’s going to be very difficult to get anything. We have to do things very well. We cannot go out onto the pitch with doubts. Normally you don’t get many chances there and you have to make them count.
“They, even if they don’t play well, usually have chances and they have to either miss them or for our goalkeeper to be on his game for us to be able to get a good result.”
Mendilibar, like Valverde a former coach with Athletic Bilbao, added of their in-form opponents: “A month and a half ago it seemed they were not worth anything. They had lost both Supercup games, they had seen a big star (Neymar) leave, there was talk that they needed signings. A month later they have won every match this season.
“We know they are a big club who have a great coach and very good players.”
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) September 18, 2017