When Barcelona signed its long-awaited Neymar replacement in Ousmane Dembele, the club made a huge gamble – paying 100 million for a 20-year-old gamble – a decision that had more to do with face saving than pulling Barcelona out of deep waters. Barca’s board was under stern pressure from the opposition demanding resignation of reigning president Josep Bartomeu.
Fans, both within the socis circle and the global participants, were and still remain vehemently critical of the President. Lack of signings, fragile squad depth and a single trophy had the fans fuming at the end of last season. But Real Madrid’s domination, after years of playing second fiddle to Barcelona, came in as a bitter pill to swallow for the red and blue faithful.
Paulinho’s signing was never welcomed by a vast majority of Barcelona fans, with some claiming it to be rubbing salt to wounds. Liverpool’s Coutinho had everyone at the Camp Nou gushing about a possible replacement to ageing Iniesta, and then came Ousmane Dembele. Over a 100 million euros, for a 20-year-old who still has a lot to prove, seems a big ask, but for Barcelona, it was a move they could not afford to see slip away.
Real Madrid thrashed, humiliated and dismantled Barcelona in Spanish Super Cup, which is equivalent to a pre-season yet official trophy with all due respect to the European Champions. Marco Asensio shined brightest of all the whites in Barcelona’s 5-1 aggregate humbling. On a side note, Real Madrid paid 4 million for Marco Asensio, which in today’s fanatical transfer market is nothing less than a steal.
Barcelona fans subsequent to the defeat had little hope for the coming season, but a drastic change in club’s performance in La Liga fixtures had them singing the Blaugrana anthems with pride once again. In all of Barcelona’s initial success, there was one bandmaster, the only one – Messi. The Camp Nou defendants also eased past last year’s UCL finalists Juventus in their UCL group stage opener, much to the surprise of many.
Then came Madrid again, Southern Madrid, not Real Madrid. Getafe – with all due respect – a minnow club from Southern Madrid hosted Barcelona on Saturday, and with just over 20 minutes on the clock, Barcelona’s 100 million wonder boy sat on the grass holding his thigh calling for help. Pretty much an anti-climax, considering Barca’s contemporary accomplishments on the pitch.
According to reports, Dembele is expected to stay out of action for 4 months due to a thigh injury – but let’s get back to the game. Last quarter of the game tied at 1-1, in comes Paulinho, much to the dismay of Barca fans. Minutes later, he makes a run-in towards goal, Messi (yes) locates him on his radar and puts him through. The Brazilian overpowers the defenders and finishes from a rather awkward angle.
Who would have thought? Of all the people, Mr. Paulinho, from Brazil, who has been called names by his own club’s fans, ridiculed, underplayed and poked fun at, would score the much needed winner which helps Barcelona continue their winning streak to four games in Spanish League. It is funny being a Barcelona fan right now, you would know if you are one.
Dembele’s injury comes as a blessing in disguise (figure of speech) to youth products Gerard Deulofeu and Denis Suarez of Barcelona’s infamous youth academy La Masia. For Deulofeu, it is now or never. His indecisiveness and inconsistency has cost him a tag which once had Messi’s successor imprinted on it. Dembele’s absence is his biggest chance to cement his place in the squad. And if you are Denis Suarez, you need to be patient, no need to rush.
Neymar’s departure has also come as a blessing for Iniesta and Jordi Alba as both of Barcelona veterans are free to move without having to “babysit” Neymar. Their performances have taken an uncanny leap. Rakitic has also being playing like Rakitic should be, with diminished jittery compared to last season. Nelson Semedo has proved to be a revelation for a club searching for a more youthful Dani Alves. And Luis Suarez… has been misfiring, looks rusty, lacks that lethal aura he is known for and is simply frustrated.
Things have transformed at Barcelona. New faces, new systems, new dilemmas and even new supporters, but one thing has not changed – Messi still remains the orchestrator of Barcelona’s choir. He has scored goals, created goals, has been defending, distributing the ball deep in from the midfield and is more venomous than ever. In the beginning of Barcelona’s season, Messi’s contract issues impregnated newspapers with ideas of his departure, with some naming his potential destination to be Manchester, blue one. They said Messi needs a new challenge, but what for?
Playing at Barcelona, when it is struggling, when it has lost a talent such as Neymar and the one who was supposed to replace him is out with injury, when your lead striker can not produce hefty amount of goals anymore and when your premier defender says the squad of current is the worst in 9 years – in such circumstances, isn’t Messi’s stay at Barcelona a challenge in itself?
Barcelona’s coach Ernesto Valverde’s task is an extremely demanding one. He is just five games into his coaching career at one of the world’s top clubs, and Ernesto can already feel his hair falling off his head. Maybe Barcelona will sign Coutinho in January, quite possibly the month Dembele returns or perhaps starts his career at Barca, but their squad depth is shallow. One or two more injuries and they will be gasping for air.
The political atmosphere is red hot at Barcelona with opposition running campaigns against club president. In a few months, there might be major changes in club administration and the squad, and it will be interesting to see how things unfold. Fixtures, both club and national will toughen up and club’s perseverance will be tested, but Barcelona has won trophies with poorer squads and it is so far, so good for them.