With all 11 starters from Wednesday’s Champions League victory over Liverpool rested, it was no great surprise to see Barcelona brought back down to earth with a 2-0 loss at relegation-threatened but in-form Celta Vigo on Saturday night.
It was Barca’s first defeat in La Liga since November, but visiting boss Ernesto Valverde will have been far more concerned to see one of his key players limp off through injury – and that setback kicks off our talking points from the action at the Balaidos.
DEMBELE DOWN AND OUT?
Ousmane Dembele headed into the game needing to produce a strong performance after a poor run of form, with the hope of persuading boss Ernesto Valverde to give him a prominent role in Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Liverpool.
Instead, though, the French forward only lasted five minutes before breaking down with an injury to his right hamstring, apparently a different but similar problem to the muscular strain on his left leg which recently kept him sidelined for a month.
Not only is Dembele now surely out of contention for the trip to Anfield, there must also be a real danger that he will play no further part for the remainder of the campaign – tests will be carried out on Sunday to ascertain the extent of the damage.
And more than that, his injury-prone ways are starting to pose an increasing threat to his long-term future at the club. Dembele missed four months of action last season, and he has now been sidelined on three separate occasions in the current campaign.
If that continues, he will seriously test the patience of the club’s hierarchy, and Dembele must urgently spend the summer investigating his physical frailty and devising a fitness and conditioning plan to minimise the danger of another injury-disrupted season in 2019/20.
CELTA STAYING UP?
Maxi Gomez’s well-taken opener and Iago Aspas’s late penalty provided a major boost to Celta’s hopes of staying up, lifting the Galician club five points clear of the relegation zone.
Celta know that defeat for third-bottom Real Valladolid at home to Europa League-chasing Athletic Bilbao on Sunday will leave them very close to securing their place in the top flight for next season, and even if other results go against them it seems likely that Celta will pick up the points they need from the final two games.
The appointment of experienced Fran Escriba as manager and – even more importantly – the return to fitness of talisman Aspas following injury has prompted a major upturn in form, and this game again saw Celta looking far too good to go down.
Of course, it hugely helped Celta’s cause that they had the fortune of playing against Barca in the middle of their Champions League semi-final, with the entire starting eleven rested. But Escriba’s men have now lost just one of their last eight games, picking up 15 points in the process, and can start to look forward to next season with optimism.
WELCOME TO THE FUTURE
This was an extremely youthful Barca side featuring eight players aged 22 or less: Jean-Clair Todibo (19), Moussa Wague (20), Carles Alena (21), Riqui Puig (19), Arthur (22), Dembele (21), Malcom (22) and substitute Alex Collado (20).
This glimpse into the future looked promising in midfield, where Arthur acted as the deep-lying pivot with Puig to his right and Alena to his left. They performed pretty well, helping Barca control long periods of the game.
Although there was a lack of cutting edge, that was more explained by poor performances from the front three, and the midfield trio all look capable of establishing regular starting places for many years to come.
Arthur, of course, has already done that, while Alena has now made 25 appearances in all competitions this season. But perhaps the best of all three will be Puig, whose comfort on the ball and excellent range of passing are remarkable for such a young and inexperienced player.
With the extremely exciting Frenkie de Jong, aged 21, also lined up to join Barca from Ajax in the summer, Barca will be abundantly stocked in the centre of the field even after current stars Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic fade into retirement.
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