Only at Barcelona could there be such doom and gloom while sitting top of La Liga with seven games left to play. But in fairness to the Blaugrana stars and their loyal supporters, it’s hardly been a season to celebrate in Catalunya.
Having started the campaign with the unpopular Ernesto Valverde at the helm, Barça limped through games, playing football that didn’t match the revered philosophies of those who had gone before him. Valverde soon met his demise, but that was far from problem solved.
Lionel Messi then hit out at the club’s board, criticising them on countless occasions throughout the season for their poor handling of transfers, managerial appointments and just about anything he could find to have a moan about.
Barcelona’s recent negligence in the transfer market may just send Messi and his disciples over the edge. La Blaugrana is set to push midfielder Arthur out of the Camp Nou exit door, while ushering in Juventus star Miralem Pjanic, a midfielder seven years the Brazilian’s senior, and one who has been pretty poor over the last two seasons. We’ve gone into why that is here, but that doesn’t make it better.
When added to the current central options, it makes for some grim reading for the Camp Nou faithful. Apart from the spring chicken Frenkie de Jong, the alternatives at Quique Setien’s disposal consist of Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets – all the wrong side of 30.
There are no two ways about it. This is the worst Barcelona side in recent memory. But as famous theologian Thomas Fuller said, ‘the darkest hour is just before the dawn’. Or was it the bad guy from The Dark Knight?
Anyway, whoever said it first was absolutely right. In Barça’s hour of need, a young prodigy is holding the torch, and guiding the way out of this dark, miserable tunnel.
Riqui Puig. A product of La Masia, a winner in Barcelona’s youth team, and carrying the weight of only 20 years on his shoulders, Puig could well be the academy’s next generational talent.
Judging by his performance in Tuesday evening’s narrow victory over Athletic Club, the starlet certainly boasts all the trademarks of a typical Blaugrana midfielder. With the game locked at 0-0 on the hour mark and the hosts beginning to fade and toil, Setien turned to Puig to change the game from the bench.
Now, the usual compliment that you could pay a youngster taking to the pitch for Barcelona is that he didn’t look out of place in their team. But on this occasion, the sub looked very out of place. But for all the right reasons.
Puig added an extra dimension to his side’s play, providing an injection of exuberance, pace and urgency to an incredibly pedestrian midfield. The 20-year-old demanded the ball from his backline, popping up in areas of unguarded space, before driving vertically with the ball and seeking a forward pass to penetrate the Athletic lines.
Although he appears fragile in size and stature, there is an edge and a grit to his game that caught plenty off guard. Puig threw himself into challenges – sometimes too enthusiastically – as he hared around the pitch in search of retaining possession.
It was a display of passion, desire and intelligence that has been missing from this midfield for some time, and his positivity also seemed to inspire those around him. The starlet’s will to win kicked Vidal and Rakitic into gear, and the duo began to make runs in behind the Bilbao backline that they hadn’t risked during the first hour of the match.
In fact, it was the freedom from these shackles that saw Barça snatch the all-important winner. The much maligned Rakitic took a gamble on a loose ball in the penalty area, and when Messi’s craft and guile laid the ball into the Croatian’s path, he showed the clinical streak that has made him one of the best midfielders of his time.
The pressure is on Barça to hand Messi whatever he needs to see out his final years in football in true style – and that means winning titles. Since the departure of Xavi and Andres Iniesta however, the club have failed to adequately rebuild their squad, with La Masia coming up short in terms of first-team prospects.
But when witnessing Puig glide between tackles and cut reverse passes through previously imperious backlines, there remains a flicker of hope. Yes, it’s clichè, and has been said many times before, but there are shades of the great Iniesta in Puig’s vision, grace and style of play.
The Spaniard is able to pick the pass you can’t even see, let alone the tricky balls you expect him to take on. His insistence to play on the front foot and dictate play is eerily similar to that of his predecessor, and his incorrigible desire is clearly contagious throughout the side.
To offer up the ultimate chapeau, no one looked more in sync with the majestic Messi than Puig. The pair worked in tandem, and his entrance allowed the Argentine to receive the ball higher up the pitch, rather than dropping deep to collect possession. In other words, Messi already trusts the youngster to supply him with the goods.
There have been many false dawns rise from La Masia in recent years, but Puig may be the man to finally restore Barça back to their former glories.