Barcelona were grasping for some shred of good news this week after their sporting director went head-to-head with their greatest ever player, they crashed out of the cup, and their second most expensive all-time signing, Ousmane Dembele, was ruled out for the rest of the season.
Someone at the club spotted that because Dembele, was not going to play again this campaign because of a torn tendon in his thigh, Borussia Dortmund would now not be asking for the €5million (£4.25m) they were due in variables for the winger reaching 75 games. Dembele is stuck on 74 matches.
It is £4.25m that might help go toward signing a replacement for the last three months of the season. ‘It’s obvious we need a striker,’ said Barcelona coach Quique Setien on Saturday.
Ousmane Dembele will be sidelined until the end of the season with a torn thigh tendon
The French forward will have to watch Barcelona’s run-in from the stands after the setback
Dembele’s time at the Nou Camp has been plagued with injuries and unfulfilled promise
But the £4.25m premium is scant consolation for the ruinous signing made in 2017 after Neymar was sold.
Of those 74 games, Marca reported this week that just 10 have been full 90 minute performances. There have been 19 goals and 17 assists. Plenty of promise but constant disappointment.
In many ways it is a transfer-market mistake that was very foreseeable. When Barcelona sold Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain for €222m (£198m) several shrewd old Catalan reporters voiced greater concerns over how the club would spend the money than over how the Brazilian would be missed.
They knew, because they had seen it all before. In 2000 Barcelona were slightly embarrassed by Luis Figo running off to join Real Madrid but they did make around €62m (£53m in today’s exchange rate) from the deal.
That was huge money 17 years ago but the board blew most of it on Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit.
There was great excitement when Dembele became Barcelona’s second most expensive player
Dembele has shown some signs of promise, celebrating a goal against Sevilla with Luis Suarez
OUSMANE DEMBELE AT BARCELONA
Matches 24; Minutes 1,220; Goals 4; Assists 9
Matches 42; Minutes 2,503; Goals 14; Assists 9
Matches 9; Minutes 492; Goals 1
Matches 74; Minutes 4,125; Goals 19; Assists 17
This time Barcelona spent big on Philippe Coutinho and Dembele but his first season did not go well. When he first arrived Barcelona are reported to have sent him a personal chef to stop him eating junk food at home.
It has been widely reported that he sent the cook packing and was generally unresponsive in terms of taking greater care of his diet and lifestyle.
When he played, the blistering pace and two-footed talent filled Barcelona supporters with hope but he injured his left hamstring in November and ended up only playing 23 games with only two complete matches in that first campaign.
There were high hopes that, having sorted his hamstring problems, the second season would be the one in which he really landed at the club. But he only competed five full 90-minutes in his 42 games.
The season ended for him against Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final.
Dembele has scored 19 goals and 17 assists in all for Barcelona, but has struggled this season
He netted 14 times last season, including this one against Tottenham in the Champions League
He had the chance to make it 4-0 late in the first leg when he was teed-up by an exhausted Messi who sank to his knees when Dembele dinked the golden chance into Liverpool keeper’s Alisson’s arms.
The score stayed 3-0 and Barcelona did not have enough to get beyond the second leg at Anfield.
Dembele’s first game in this his third season had him starting against Athletic Bilbao. He gave the ball away throughout the match and failed to track right-back Athletic Ander Capa as he crossed for the late winner.
After the game he complained of a twinge in his hamstring that the club wanted to scan the following morning but Dembele, who cost Barcelona £135m in August 2017, said he would only arrive for the check up if the discomfort persisted.
He never showed on the Saturday instead making the most of two days off granted the squad by flying abroad.
Despite the occasional glimpses of class, Dembele has been plagued by off-field issues
Lionel Messi checks on Dembele after he suffered an injury during a game with Dortmund
His agent had to speak out after several Spanish media claimed the player had flown to Senegal. ‘It’s not true,’ said Moussa Sissoko. ‘He did not go to Senegal he was in Rennes at his mother’s house.’
France, Senegal, either way he was not where he should have been – having his hamstring scanned.
Back from France, Dembele trained on the Monday morning without complaining of any further problems with his hamstrings but he felt discomfort in one of the passing drills and after the scan — which the club feel should have taken place several days before — a tear in the hamstring was confirmed and five weeks of rest prescribed.
That was a perfect example of how often the bad luck with injuries was coupled with complacency on the player’s part.
Dembele’s Barcelona team-mates have done their best to school the youngster. In his second season Gerard Pique warned him that football is not just about turning up and playing 90 minutes.
He had been dropped from the squad having failed to show for training in the week running up to a game.
His absence leaves a problem for manager Quique Setien, who is short-handed in attack
Barcelona were dumped out of the Copa del Rey by Sevilla last week in a major blow
Pique said: ‘We have to help him realise that football is a 24-hour thing. And that sometimes it’s not just about doing [your job] but also appearing to.’
The club’s failure to track him down after that training ground absence was almost comical. Eventually they located the player at home and he excused himself for having missed the session complaining of a stomach bug.
When asked why he had not called to inform the club he said his phone had no battery. A club doctor was sent to his home and according to Diario AS: ‘The player had recovered significantly from his stomach problem’ when the club official arrived.
‘We have all been young and we have all made mistakes. I am convinced he will improve,’ Pique added but that patience has not so much run out as just turned into sadness for what is at the moment an unfulfilled talent.
The pace to put opposing defences on the back foot has always been there but Barcelona forwards cannot just be quick and skilful. They have to be able to keep the ball.
There has to have intelligence and good decision-making, and they have to run themselves into the ground as the likes of David Villa, Pedro and Samuel Eto’o have done in the past.
Ernesto Valverde said at the time in reference to Dembele: ‘Everyone loses the ball, the question is what you do after you lose it.’
Lionel Messi reacts after the final whistle as Barcelona exited the Spanish Cup
Dembele is certainly not a candidate for Pep Guardiola’s school of winning the ball back within five seconds of losing it.
So what now for the winger? On Tuesday he will be in Finland where Doctor Sakari Orava will operate on a tendon in his right leg.
Barcelona have dipped their toe into the potential Dembele-sale market before. Stories circulated in 2018 that Liverpool might be interested. Manchester City have also been linked.
But does Dembele really have the intensity, concentration and application for a Jurgen Klopp or a Pep Guardiola team?
Current Barcelona coach Quique Setien might have been the right fit for him. He hailed him as like a new signing when asked about the prospect of him returning last weekend. That hope was short-lived as another injury put his Barcelona career on hold.
The ability will still be there when he returns. And he is still only 22. He has shown flashes of raw talent across these three seasons for Barcelona not to give up on him.
But the return on the outlay in 2017 is so far minimal and if Neymar returns in the summer or the club look to re-sign Adama Traore or develop recent Benfica recruit Francisco Trincao, he might have to fulfill his potential elsewhere.