Clement Lenglet and Philippe Coutinho among hits and misses in the Valverde era at Barcelona

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The Ernesto Valverde era at Barcelona has experienced consistent highs and certainly gut-wrenching lows too. The Catalans eased to two La Liga titles with the other 19 teams standing helplessly by. However, two humiliating Champions League exits at the hands of Roma and Liverpool have eclipsed the consistency shown by the Catalan team.

Before the ongoing transfer window, Barcelona spent over €500 million in just two summers under Valverde. A club with such financial backing and big names in the squad is expected to win at least one Champions League title, let alone avoid elimination after securing a three-goal advantage in a knockout stage, as they did in the semi-final against Liverpool last season.

Which signings did not make any impact and what were the reasons? Which signings made an effective start and what went right? We take a look.

FLOPS

Philippe Coutinho – €145m

Coutinho

Barcelona’s record signing was sent on loan to Bayern Munich after a forgettable stint at his dream club in which he scored just 13 goals and contributed seven assists. A hat-trick in a losing cause against Levante and a fantastic goal against Manchester United in the Champions League were the only two prominent moments of his Barcelona career so far.

The Brazilian’s deterioration can be attributed to lack of confidence and the incompetence of the manager who could not get the best out of the player.

Coutinho played out of his natural position and failed to adapt to his new role on the left wing.

Transfer Rating: 3/10

Ousmane Dembele – €125m

Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho

Once tipped to pick up the mantle from Neymar as ‘Barcelona’s next big thing’, Ousmane Dembele now spends as many days on the hospital wing as he does the flanks of the Camp Nou.

It would be harsh to classify this signing as a total flop as the Frenchman has come clutch in crunch moments in La Liga, and is still young. But he displayed his flair in bands rather than a spectrum, indicating that he needs to work harder and show consistency.

The 21-year-old is criticised for throwing away possession frequently and failing to produce an end-product after a sequence of flashy runs.

Dembele has been very unlucky with injuries which have inhibited his growth at the club. This has been a major contributor to his inclusion in this list.

Transfer rating: 5/10

HITS

Arthur – €31m

Arthur and Lionel Messi.

Arthur and Lionel Messi.

It’s been just over a year since Arthur joined Barcelona from Gremio but just like nine months ago, very few would believe that the Brazilian was not an academy product.

The 23-year-old fit like a glove at his new club from day one. His press-resistance and eye for a pass have invited comparisons to Barcelona legend Xavi.

Arthur’s passing range is encouraging, and he brings structure to the midfield. All these traits are favoured in a Barcelona midfielder and the Brazilian is hence tipped to sustain his impressive growth at the club.

He has his flaws too – he is not the best at winning aerial duels and gets bullied off the ball at times. But the signs are encouraging and as things stand, Arthur is Barcelona’s best buy in the Valverde era.

Transfer rating – 8/10

Clement Lenglet – €35.9m

19/05/2019 EIBAR eibar vs barsa FOTO: JUAN MANUEL SERRANO ARCE

In a world where central defenders are costing clubs in excess of €70m, Clement Lenglet has proved to be an absolute bargain.

The former Sevilla man filled in for an injured Samuel Umtiti so impressively that the Frenchman’s absence was hardly felt. That this is being said about a World Cup winner and Barcelona’s best defender in the last two seasons says a lot about what Lenglet has brought to the Blaugrana.

The 24-year-old is a good passer of the ball and makes up for a lack of pace with astute positioning. Like Arthur, Lenglet too has gelled into the squad seamlessly.

The centre-back does not possess any notable weakness but he could look at an overall improvement to push Umtiti further away from the starting line-up.

Transfer rating – 8/10

UNNECESSARY BUY TURNED FLOP

Malcom – €41m

Malcom

Barcelona roped in Malcom under suspicious circumstances after a stunning season at Bordeaux. The Brazilian was never linked to the Catalan side and would have joined Roma but the Spanish giants swooped in.

A talented player in his own right, the 22-year-old was just not cut out for Barcelona’s style of play. Malcom is great with the ball at his feet but not the best at linking up with players in tight spaces.

The winger took a gamble on his career by choosing Spain over Italy and it did not work out. He displayed flashes of brilliance but did not earn enough minutes under Valverde.

In the grand scheme of things, it appears that the Spanish giants did not need the player and stole him from Roma out of spite after being humiliated in the Champions League. This failed transfer is on the club, given they used the player – now at Zenit St Petersburg – like a pawn.

Transfer rating – 4/10

SURPRISE BUY TURNED HIT

Arturo Vidal – €18m

Arturo Vidal

Arturo Vidal’s CV includes impressive stints at top European clubs like Juventus and Bayern Munich. That the Chilean has won every league title since the 2011/12 season vouches for the quality he possesses. But a move to Barca when there were already too many options came as a surprise, given his skill-set did not exactly fit with the Spanish style of play.

One season into the midfielder’s Barcelona career, however, and he has provided them with exactly what they lacked in midfield – the muscle that protects the prettier players when protecting a slender lead. Vidal never shies away from tackles or hard work and this fighting spirit has reduced the burden on the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets in crucial moments.

However, the technical aspects of his game should not be ignored either. The Chilean is great at distributing the ball, switching flanks and moving forward occasionally.

Most importantly, Vidal is yet to display a bad performance in a Barcelona shirt.

Transfer rating – 7/10

Figures from transfermarkt

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Lionel Messi trains with team-mates ahead of possible Barcelona return against Real Betis

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Lionel Messi could return to action for La Liga champions Barcelona against Real Betis on Sunday after recovering from a leg injury.

The Argentina playmaker has been out since August 5 and missed his side’s 1-0 opening weekend defeat at Athletic Bilbao.

But Messi joined his team-mates in full training on Wednesday ahead of the home clash with Betis.

“It’s the news we’ve all been waiting for and it finally happened on Wednesday as Leo Messi was back training with his team-mates at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper,” read a statement on Barcelona’s website.

“It was the first time he has been able to do that since picking up a right leg injury last August 5. He was the star attraction on pitch 2 at the training facility, where the first team was also joined by Inaki Pena, Chumi, Carles Perez and Abel Ruiz of Barca B as well as teenage sensation Ansu Fati from the U19 team.

“The team will be taking a rest on Thursday and will be back at it on Friday morning, with one further workout on Saturday before they take on Real Betis in the first Liga game of the season at Camp Nou on Sunday.”

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Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic and Karim Benzema among world's most underrated stars

Alex Rea 21/08/2019
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Barcelona star Ivan Rakitic

Opinions in football are like strikes at goal: some are dead on, others are well wide of the mark.

By their very nature, there’s rarely any middle ground, it’s one or the other and personal bias can often drive which side of the divide people fall on.

Which bring us to today’s potentially divisive offering.

We’ve picked out five players who for a variety of reasons are underrated. Now, this is not to say these players are not already rated, but that they are deserving of more recognition than what they currently garner, whether from their own supporters or on a more global scale.

After examining five of the most overrated stars, here’s a look at five of the most underrated players in football right now.

KARIM BENZEMA | REAL MADRID

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The top three all-time highest goalscorers in the Champions League are probably names easily guessed. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Raul are an obvious cast of goalscoring greats, but the man at number four might surprise.

Karim Benzema is indeed the fourth-best marksman in Europe’s top-tier competition with an impressive 60 goals in 112 appearances.

Considering the vast majority of those games were spent as a decoy for the man in top spot, it’s an immense return.

Even beyond Europe, Benzema’s numbers are to be celebrated with his decade at Madrid seeing him reach 223 goals in 465 appearances, spearheading the capture of 17 major trophies.

He’s done so quietly on his part, in a variety of different roles and often under incredible criticism from the Madrid fan base.

When Ronaldo left the club last year, the 31-year-old went onto to enjoy his second-best league scoring record for Los Blancos, plundering 21 times. And yet, despite being Real’s best player in 2018/19, there remains calls to see him usurped by new-boy Luka Jovic.

Only when Benzema is out of the side will people realise what is lost.

SADIO MANE | LIVERPOOL & SENEGAL

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There was narrative which annoyed many last season that Sadio Mane was underrated, but it was mainly the Liverpool fan base frustrated with that assessment.

In their eyes, Mane is the attacking leader of the European champions, a scorer of crucial goals – particularly openers – and a player who embraces multiple positions – he’s Jurgen Klopp’s best option at cloning Roberto Firmino.

But to the wider world, Mane is still considered beneath someone like Ronaldo. The Senegalese was fifth in UEFA’s Player of the Year award with two of his own team-mates ahead of him in Alisson and Virgil van Dijk.

On the basis of last season, Mane was more deserving of a spot in the top three.

Need evidence? He cunningly won the penalty in the Champions League final against Tottenham, scored away at Porto in the quarters and twice at the Allianz Arena versus Bayern Munich in the last-16 – the first of which was a sublime finish.

After an energy-sapping club campaign which saw him share the Premier League golden boot with 22 goals, he then powered Senegal to the Africa Cup of Nations final.

The 27-year-old should have a reputation as the best attacker in the world not-named Messi, but he doesn’t and he should.

MARCO REUS | BORUSSIA DORTMUND & GERMANY

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Mention the name Marco Reus and undoubtedly ‘injury’ follows shortly after, but the mercurial German forward enjoyed one of his finest campaigns in 2018/19.

An inspirational leader for Borussia Dortmund, the 30-year-old powered his side to within sight of the Bundesliga title. His 17 league goals was the third highest in the German flight with a further contribution of eight assists.

Beyond the numbers, Reus is the buzzing heartbeat of Dortmund, integral to the build-up play and high press. Some of his goals last season were delightfully serene.

In transition there are few better players with the ability to turn defending into goals with so few touches.

There were numerous examples coated by his trademark technical skill in 2018/19. Nurnberg, Bayern Munich and Hannover are three prominent cases in which a counter-attack was driven by Reus, before his sharp pass out wide was followed with him ghosting into intelligent pockets of space to then apply a lethal finishing touch when the ball is returned.

Reus is one of the most devastating counter-attacking players on the planet, but his injury record has stopped him from consideration among the very best in the world.

IVAN RAKITIC | BARCELONA & CROATIA

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He helped guide his side to a dominant La Liga crown, was instrumental in inspiring Croatia to a stunning World Cup final and has retained a reputation as a premier playmaker for much of his career.

Ivan Rakitic mirrors his compatriot and Real Madrid rival Luka Modric in a lot of ways, bar one glaring – and glittering – difference. Modric won the Ballon d’Or last year, breaking the decade Messi-Ronaldo duopoly, and yet he probably wasn’t even his country’s best player in Russia.

This is not to say Rakitic should have been a considered candidate, but the Barcelona midfielder deserves far more credit and respect than he gets. Arguably his best performances in a Croatia shirt came at the last World Cup, while at club level, the 31-year-old has been a standout for Barca ever since recovering from a testing 2016/17 campaign.

Social media is an ocean of opinion, but there is more garbage there on Rakitic than in the world’s debris-filled waters. He’s an absolute monster of a box-to-box midfielder, a technically superb striker of the ball, a brilliant passer both long and short with an outstanding engine.

Rakitic is the complete package, and yet he’s been consistently named as the man Barca want to offload in a deal for Neymar, with even the suggestion of a ludicrous swap for Juventus midfielder Emre Can. The club and sections of its fan base may not know what they had until he’s gone.

CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN | TOTTENHAM & DENMARK

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Spurs thinking they don’t need Christian Eriksen for their fresh era is akin to opening the swanky Tottenham Hotspur Stadium without electricity. The structure is sound and looks great, but without an energy supply it’s pretty pointless.

Eriksen has been Spurs’ creative fulcrum since joining from Ajax back in 2013, contributing to nearly 19 goals per season on average. When the 27-year-old, out of contract next summer, suggested he was ready for a move elsewhere, the club seemed content to cash in rather than offer him terms befitting of his importance to the team.

But the Dane is caught in a weird situation with none of the elite sides he wants to step up to – the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and notably Real Madrid – seemingly interested in him, despite Spurs’ relatively low asking price.

Eriksen’s age and consistent output should mark him out as the most in-demand playmaker around, but that simply isn’t the case.

His importance to Spurs was never more obvious than when he entered their Premier League opener against Aston Villa and illuminated their attack.

Perhaps Europe’s elite need to switch on their own metaphorical light bulb before missing out on such a glorious talent.

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