Barcelona‘s players began returning from the international break on Wednesday, with five headed straight to the treatment room with various niggles.
The biggest concern is Lionel Messi, whose hamstring strain kept him out of both of Argentina’s friendlies over the past week, although the injury is not thought to be serious.
Goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was kept out of Germany’s loss to Brazil on Tuesday with a knee injury although this was likely more precautionary than the result of a serious injury.
Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique both picked up knocks in Spain’s match against Argentina, with the injury to midfielder Iniesta’s ankle slightly worrying as he has been struggling for fitness all season. Pique injured his knee in the fixture, although again, neither injury is reportedly serious.
Finally, Lucas Digne’s thigh strain, picked up during France’s game against Colombia, could keep him out for up to three weeks.
Argentina were dealt a huge setback in their preparations for this summer’s World Cup as they were thrashed 6-1 by Spain.
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said Messi’s absence was due to fatigue.
He said, according to Marca: “Messi trained with us, but then he felt tired and couldn’t play.
“He was with the group all the time because he is very involved for the World Cup.
“He has kept close proximity to the national team, helping the new guys out.”
On the result, Sampaoli added: “I take the blame for the goals, don’t point to the players.
“The difference (between the sides) in the game wasn’t as large as the result.
“We have to learn from this. It cannot happen in the World Cup.”
Football fans received a glimpse of the future this week – and it was Oranje coloured.
In 18-year-old centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, a totem is emerging of where the ‘Beautiful Game’ is headed.
Blessed with dynamism to engender envy in even the finest box-to-box midfielder, De Ligt is utterly unfazed when bursting into the attacking half. Yet he was still capable of halting Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring run of 19 goals in his last nine games during Monday’s 3-0 friendly win for the Netherlands, which was joyously laced with belated promise.
The callow youth so brutally exposed on debut versus Bulgaria last year is transforming into a revolutionary figure.
He is accelerating along a path forged by Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer and countryman Ruud Krol more than 40 years ago. And one since traversed by the likes of new national boss Ronald Koeman, his contemporary Frank Rijkaard, Brazil World Cup 2002 winner Lucio and the irrepressible Sergio Ramos.
Ramifications of De Ligt’s startling nascent performances reverberate far beyond Ajax’s Amsterdam ArenA. They should be felt in the corridors of power at Camp Nou and Old Trafford, impacting key strategic decisions in the summer transfer market ahead.
Consummate defending alone is no longer enough at the highest level of European club competition. Such is the dominance of the elite, simply shutting out the opposition is a thought reserved for a handful of select fixtures.
The leaders in the big-five leagues (La Liga, Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A) have won a combined 121 times from 146 fixtures. They’ve lost just once to opposition from the bottom half of the table – Paris Saint-Germain going down 2-1 at Strasbourg in December.
In the top-five seasons in Champions League history with the highest goal average, four have been recorded since 2013/14 – with 2016/17’s 3.04 the most.
Further evidence that the minnows offer increasing cannon fodder is found in the fact the top-two teams who scored the most goals in the groups come from this season. PSG’s 25 goals pipped Liverpool by two.
Borussia Dortmund round out the top three with their 21 in 2016/17.
17y 225d - Matthijs de Ligt becomes the youngest player to play for the Netherlands since 1931 (Mauk Weber, 17y 222d). Rookie.— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) March 25, 2017
Efficacy in defence is still important. It just now, more than ever, must be supplemented by ability on the ball.
To stick with the Dutch theme, De Ligt’s antecedents are Rijkaard and Koeman. But what makes him so valuable is an increasing defensive acumen redolent of Jaap Stam.
His statistics at club and international level bear this out.
On Eredivise duty for Ajax, only centre midfielder Frenkie de Jong’s average-pass-success rate of 91.4 per cent beats his 89.5 per cent.
Intriguingly, 15 team-mates beat his average of one tackle per game. But don’t mistake this for being a soft touch, De Ligt leads the way with average clearances (4.5 per game) and aerials won (3.2 per game).
His two key passes – both assists – for the Oranje in victory against Euro 2016 winners Portugal was double any compatriot. A break into space on the right-hand side of the penalty box and perfect cross for Besiktas’ Ryan Babel to make it 2-0 was exemplar of his auspicious abilities.
Granted the same freedom by Koeman to push forward like he does for Ajax, he impressively was not dispossessed once in both fixtures during the international break.
At 18-years old, areas of improvement remain obvious. De Ligt was fortunate to not concede a spot-kick for felling fellow wonder kid Marcus Rashford in Friday’s 1-0 loss to England.
Greater judgement will come with increased experience – although not at World Cup 2018.
It is this tantalising prospect that could cause the leadership at Barcelona to make a brave judgement call in the months ahead.
Samuel Umtiti has been in peerless form, February’s early misjudgement against Girona aside. Reports in Catalan daily SPORT state the 24-year-old France centre-back’s advisers have been emboldened to demand an annual pay rise from €4.4 million (Dh20m) to nearly €18m (Dh82m) for an enticing €60m (Dh273.2m) release clause to be upgraded.
Figures Manchester United are happy to pay.
With Barca already blowing through their Neymar windfall with the acquisitions of Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho, plus ready to lavish another nine-figure fee on Antoine Griezmann, something may have to give.
The acquisition of De Ligt on a five-year deal would, surely, cost less than renewing Umtiti.
This would not just represent an astute saving of cash at the cost of relinquishing a ready-made product.
They would be investing in a player of unmatched applicability to the modern game.