Barcelona’s trip to Las Palmas on Thursday shouldn’t be the most significant of fixtures in deciding La Liga, with Sunday’s heavyweight clash with Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou instead looming large as a potential title decider.
But for one player in particular, this relatively low-profile midweek tussle is exceptionally important: Ousmane Dembele.
It’s well documented that the French winger has suffered a tough first season with Barcelona since his €105 million move from Borussia Dortmund in the summer, with injuries restricting him to just a handful of appearances.
And when he has been able to play, Dembele has largely looked out of place and out of sorts, regularly failing to read his teammates’ intentions and cheaply conceding possession with worrying frequency.
However, last weekend’s thumping home victory over Girona – even though Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez stole the headlines with five of the team’s six goals – could well prove to be a badly-needed turning point for Dembele, who started to look comfortable in a Blaugrana shirt for the very first time.
That wasn’t the case in the first half, when he continued to deliver the kind of disjointed, error-strewn display which marked his first six months as a Barcelona player.
But after the break, it was a different story. Dembele suddenly looked relaxed, made much better use of the ball, gained sufficient confidence to beat his man with silky dribbling skills on more than one occasion, and ended up proving he can also find end product by breaking down the right flank to send over a perfect assist for Suarez’s hat-trick goal.
Ousmane Dembélé (second half) vs Girona.— fabiano™ (@XaviTempo) February 24, 2018
A much more promising second half from the young winger. He will only keep on growing and adapt with playing time.
He is back. pic.twitter.com/0aHYBY49gR
That was exactly what Dembele needed, and it was exactly what his team needed, because the 20 year-old has a massive role to play in the next few weeks if Barca are to round off their highly promising campaign by claiming the Champions League crown as well as La Liga.
The first leg of Barca’s last 16 tie with Chelsea, even though it produced a favourable outcome, was very worrying for coach Ernesto Valverde and his players, with the London club’s deep and disciplined defending restricting the visitors to just a handful of half-chances.
That was no great surprise because other than Suarez’s bustling centre forward play and the genius of Messi, Barca had very little attacking thrust in their starting eleven at Stamford Bridge – the fact that Jordi Alba, the left-back, is their most dangerous source of penetration, says it all.
Even though Barca escaped with a 1-1 draw thanks to a defensive mistake and are therefore now in prime position to overcome Chelsea, they will need to produce a lot more in attack to have any realistic chance of taking their European campaign all the way.
And Dembele is exactly the man who should be providing the kind of destabilising attacking output so badly missing at Stamford Bridge, with his pace, creativity and ability on the ball capable of giving his team’s attacking play a completely new dimension.
In the circumstances, it’s perfectly understandable that Dembele has taken a long time to settle. He is a young man with no prior experience of Barca’s style of play, and any player would struggle to find rhythm and confidence after spending so long on the sidelines through injury.
Ousmane Dembélé vs Girona— FootballTalentScout (@FTalentScout) February 24, 2018
87% pass accuracy
4 key passes
4 dribbles won
Good performance on his first start after the injury. Still A LOT more to come from this wonderkid. Stay tuned. pic.twitter.com/mPHClISi6W
Now, though, he is fit and available, and he needs to step up. That can only happen by gaining time on the pitch, and Valverde must make the most of every opportunity to give Dembele the minutes he so badly needs.
The good news is that this doesn’t have to be a season wasted for Dembele. Starting tonight at Las Palmas, Barca have three more league games before the rematch with Chelsea, and then two more before the first leg of the quarter finals.
That’s more than enough time for Dembele, if he keeps playing, to gain more of an understanding with his teammates, improve his match fitness and boost his confidence in exactly the way he started to do during the second half against Girona.
And with so little action under his belt this season, he should then be able to enter the final stages of the campaign in a much fresher physical condition than most players, giving him an automatic advantage over jaded opposition full-backs.
His Barca career has been little short of disastrous so far, but if all goes to plan now Dembele could be the man to make a difference – and turn his team not only into champions of Spain, but also champions of Europe.
The Catalans should make light work of the trip but can’t afford any hiccups against the relegation-threatened side as Atletico Madrid‘s form has got them looking over their shoulders.
Here are three talking points ahead of the encounter.
BARCELONA LOOKING BEYOND THIS ONE
This game is little more than an unwanted distraction for Barcelona. Second place Atletico Madrid’s form of late has threatened to reignite the La Liga title race that seemed dead and buried in January. However, with a showdown with the Catalans set for this weekend at Camp Nou, the league title is no longer a foregone conclusion.
The form of Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann in attack has rejuvenated the Madrid outfit and led their late title charge. If both Atletico and Barcelona win their midweek league fixtures – Atletico play Leganes on Wednesday night – then the gap will remain at seven points when the two teams square-off on Sunday.
With Barcelona’s lead then in danger of being cut down to just four points in the event of a defeat, it’s only natural that Ernesto Valverde and his side will have one eye on that fixture when they travel to Las Palmas.
Barcelona are unbeaten in the league this season and have defeated Thursday’s opponents in all of their last five meetings in all competitions – scoring at least three goals in the last three meetings between the two sides.
As such, the Catalans will be confident going into this fixture and should see no reason to risk Gerard Pique. Valverde’s perplexing decision to play the defender in the 6-1 win over Girona didn’t go down too well. Recovering from injury, Pique surprisingly took to the field with heavy strapping around his knee and went down clutching it in pain at the start of the second-half.
The Spaniard battled on until the hour mark before eventually being relieved by Thomas Vermaelen. Surely, Valverde mustn’t risk his defensive stalwart again with more demanding contests on the horizon, especially with the likes of Vermaelen and Yerry Mina available for selection.
BARCA CAN’T RISK COMPLACENCY
Although history is firmly on their side and they are the overwhelming favourites, Barcelona can ill-afford to take Las Palmas lightly. Valverde would certainly not be condemned for fielding a weakened side. In truth, that would probably be a sensible decision, but the team he puts out will still have to perform and deliver all three points.
Real Madrid chose to field a depleted team against Espanyol, which was always forecasted, but it was their complete lack of intensity that saw them suffer a 1-0 defeat on Tuesday night. Barcelona will be kicking themselves if they were to lose their unbeaten record to sheer complacency against one of the league’s struggling sides.
They may be perturbed by the possibility of Atletico cutting the gap to four points if they beat them on Sunday but lose to Las Palmas and suddenly they could be just one point ahead of Diego Simeone’s side come Monday.
Las Palmas are fighting for survival as they sit 18th in the table, a point behind Levante and nine behind Alaves in 16th. With Celta Vigo to play next only on Monday night, there’s no reason for Paco Jemez to rest players for this encounter. At this point, they want to be scrapping for every point.
Having shown some fight in recent times, taking eight points from their last six league fixtures, they may not be the pushovers Barcelona have grown accustomed to facing. Since Jemez’s arrival, they have been far more solid at the back, keeping three clean sheets in their last four so the visitors may come up against a fair bit of resistance this time around and will need to be on their game.
DEMBELE AND COUTINHO’S AUDITIONS
Valverde would’ve seen plenty in the resounding win over Girona to be delighted with but one of the more reassuring points to draw from it was the way Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho performed on the first time they started together.
Barcelona have usually employed four central midfielders across the middle with Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic or Paulinho the widest two. It has facilitated their command over possession but with Dembele and Coutinho utilised on the flanks instead, they were able to stretch the opposition more while retaining the ability to drift inside and allow the full-backs to venture forward.
Both managed to assist Luis Suarez on the night while the Brazilian capped his performance with a sublime curling effort from distance. The duo added a new dimension to La Blaugrana’s play and if they can prove against Las Palmas that it wasn’t a one-off, it bodes well for upcoming fixtures, starting with the clash against Atletico.
Barcelona were evidently short of ideas in their first leg 1-1 draw against Chelsea in the Champions League. They eventually capitalised on an error by Andreas Christensen but struggled to stretch the hosts’ defence at Stamford Bridge. Incorporating Dembele in the side for the return leg at Camp Nou – Coutinho on the other hand is cup tied – could give them the edge they need in attack.
Former Real Madrid boss and Manchester United assistant coach has joked that footballing legend Lionel Messi should be banned by FIFA, in a move which would help his Iran side in this summer’s World Cup!
Argentina and Iran will go head-to-head in the Group Stages in Russia – four years on from when a stoppage-time Messi strike gave the South American side a 1-0 victory against the minnows in Brazil.
“I’ve always said that Messi is an extraordinary player,” Iran boss Queiroz said, when asked about the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in an interview with FIFA.com. “He’s out of this world. If he were human, he wouldn’t have had that magical moment in that match.
“I don’t usually like losing, but I didn’t come away from that defeat with a negative feeling. It’s when something magical like that happens that you know that football is alive and kicking, and that’s why it’s one of the best sports in the world to watch.
“And it’s even more of a special moment when it comes from a player who shouldn’t be allowed to play by FIFA until it’s proven that he’s actually human!”