Down on the bench, Jordi Alba leaned towards to Ronald Araújo, said something cheeky and grinned. At which point, the Uruguayan, a little slow to click at first, went from huh?! to a line of his own and both of them started laughing. They covered their mouths so you couldn’t work out what it actually was but it was more fun to guess anyway, a kind of Camp Nou caption competition. Something like: “And then he only goes and says: ‘surely love is a kind of blackmail,’” perhaps. Or: “Should have gone to Spurs.”
They had just gone into the 92nd minute of Sunday’s game and Barcelona were leading Osasuna 4-0. Alba had been withdrawn, invited to enjoy the rest the night off. To his left were Gerard Piqué and Ferrán Torres, their work here done, much like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Pedri who sat in the shadows of the second row. Alongside them, Adama Traoré, Araújo and the two De Jongs hadn’t been needed but they will be. For now, they had to sit it out and watch.
Alba had turned to Araújo at exactly the moment Ousmane Dembélé had escaped up the right again. This time the Frenchman’s cross fell short, but they could laugh: the game was won and Dembélé had already created two goals for the second time in 14 days. In four league matches, he had as many assists as in the previous f45. Only two players, Karim Benzema and Óscar Trejo, have more in the league. And Dembélé has startedonly seven games.
He wasn’t supposed to start any more. It was 53 days since he had been handed an ultimatum: renew your contract or leave now.
Or, y’know, don’t.
As negotiations fell apart – Barcelona unable to reach agreement with a player their president claimed was “better than Mbappé” – Xavi Hernández had warned that leaving someone in the stands wasn’t a good look. It was not something he was “contemplating,” he said, but he had little choice. And when the ultimatum was delivered, a decision taken by club not coach, he knew it could prove impossible to impose. Dembélé, he conceded, is the one “holding the frying pan by the handle”. Not least because they needed him to sign or go in order to register others.
Dembélé said he wasn’t the kind of man who gives in to blackmail. “And surely love is a kind of blackmail,” he wrote but there wasn’t much love left, if there ever really had been. For too many of his four years in Spain he had been almost irrelevant; now his time was going to end the way it played out, watching others play, or so it goes.
Barcelona left him out of the squad for the next game in the cup, which might have meant there wasn’t a next game in the cup: in his absence, Barcelona were eliminated by Athletic Club. They kept pushing him towards the door, desperately seeking a solution right to the end. You name a club, they named a club. They signed people to play in his position. They tried to make him go to Spurs. But Dembélé wasn’t moving. And so, in the end, they did.
When the window closed and Dembélé was still there, the threat became worthless. “We have to be intelligent, leave egos to one side and make the most of Ousmane,” Dani Alves said. “A solution hasn’t been found; he’s part of the squad and he has a contract,” the coach insisted, convincing the club of that. “We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot.” Twenty-three days after being told to leave, Dembélé ran on away at city rivals Espanyol – which was one way of ensuring he didn’t get such a hostile reception on his return.
Before Dembélé reappeared at the Camp Nou four days later, Xavi asked fans not to whistle him but they did it anyway. “They didn’t take any notice of me,” the coach said, but actually some probably had: their anger and rejection was expressed briefly and extremely loudly, a statement made, but they were here to support the team it not necessarily him, and so they moved on.
So did he, acting as if nothing had happened, which is how he acts often, passivity apparently is part of him. He just went to train and played games, and did very well. “He’s been a good professional, his behaviour is irreproachable: I have no complaints,” Xavi said. “I’m pleased for him because it hasn’t been an easy situation, but I always said he could be the best in the world in his position. As a club I think we were intelligent and we have to make the most of him because he is a talent.”
When he had replied to Barcelona’s “blackmail” Dembélé had said his days of ignoring the things said about him were over, declaring four years of silence “finished”, and then immediately went silent again. He scored a belter against Athletic, the ball rocketing into the net, but there was no finger in the ear or on the lip, no now what?! The assists followed and there was no vindication or redemption song, not a word. Perhaps more importantly, there were no injuries, at least not yet.
Barcelona have played four league games since Espanyol and won them all; in three, they have scored four goals, the whistles fading away. You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all the time but cannot fool all of the people all of the time. As for the Camp Nou people, you can’t fool them at all, Xavi said. Which was kind of ironic – Lord knows, Barcelona boards have tried – but this time it was right. “If you perform you make people happy: they see how he works, how he gives his life for Barcelona,” the coach said last night. “He made chances, passed, gave assists. There’s no debate now.”
Not that it is only Dembélé, Xavi rightly starting to list the rest when the focus fell on the Frenchman on Sunday night. The league game before his return, Barcelona also scored four after all, against Atlético. They’re unbeaten in 12, and have won six of their last seven. A league table since Xavi took over from Ronald Koeman would have them second, two points behind Madrid, having lost a solitary game. The 2022 table would have them top. The actual table has them third, closing on Sevilla.
Asked if they would win the league, Xavi replied: “quite honestly, it’s very difficult. Even if we did win at the Bernabéu, Madrid would still have to drop points three or four times so we can’t be very optimistic.” Not about that, no, but when it comes to it there are reasons to be cheerful, with Osasuna manager Jagoba Arrasate saying: “they’re developing an idea and the mechanics are better. They have more punch up front than the team we faced earlier in the season.”
Traoré has provided more assists in 21 minutes than 20 games at Wolves. By his fifth game he had more than in the previous 73. Ferran Torres has five goals, two coming on Sunday just as doubts emerged about his finishing. Aubameyang has six. “He’s a gift from heaven,” Xavi said. Dani Alves is six weeks from his 39th birthday and flying. Sergio Busquets and Piqué aren’t finished. Nor is Alba. When it comes to talent, Pedri is the best in the world Xavi says, a footballer who “reminds me of Andrés Iniesta”. Gavi plays with his laces undone, but he’s “a wonder”, the Barcelona coach insisting: “he amazes me.”
There is more, or at least there was on Sunday night. Leading 3-0 after half an hour, Barcelona could make changes, resting players ahead of a week when they go to Turkey and the Bernabéu. Walking in: Memphis, who has 10 goals; Riqui Puig who hadn’t played a minute in La Liga in 2022 and scored his first for 14 months; Clément Lenglet, who hadn’t started this year; Óscar Mingueza, who had started just once; even Martin Braithwaite appearing in the league for the first time since August. It was all almost too perfect, too good to be true.
And so it proved. Just when it looked like things might actually turn out all right, they looked so wrong again, Barcelona were not even given 12 hours to enjoy the perfect evening. On Sunday night they scored four, taking their 19th point from the last 21, but by Monday lunchtime there were more worrying numbers put before them, reality returning to the surface when La Liga revealed the estimated salary limits for every club. Barcelona’s is minus €144m, the only club in the red.On Sunday night, Jordi Cruyff was asked if after all that Dembélé could even end up staying. “Hmm,” he said. “I think what matters is that when he plays he gives everything; we still can’t control the rest.”