The French World Cup winner is back from his brief Barca exile and is playing the best football of his life heading into Sundays match

Ousmane Dembele’s future – and in many ways the man himself – is still a mystery, but something significant has changed, even though Barcelona’s €147 million (£123m/$163m) investment could walk away for free in the summer.

From being whistled by tens of thousands of fans at Camp Nou, while others pointedly cheered in retaliation, the emotional tug-of-war is finally over.

The winners are Xavi, Dembele himself and Barcelona as a club, and they are aiming to capitalise in the Clasico on Sunday in Madrid.

Barcelona fans have got their frustration out of their system, surrendering themselves to the uncertainty of the future and just trying to enjoy what the 24-year-old brings while they can.

And the French winger is making it easy for them, with spectacular contributions in recent weeks to help them fly up the table and progress to the Europa League quarter-finals.

The jury was still out on him as he came off the bench against Athletic Bilbao at the end of February. Despite Barcelona’s slim 1-0 lead, his presence was not welcomed by a significant part of those in attendance when he ran on in the 67th minute.

In the 73rd, Dembele broke in down the left and hammered the ball into the roof of the net, setting Camp Nou alight. It was a major turning point and finally shut the mouths of those who would not listen to Xavi.

The coach, after Dembele’s name was jeered in February when he returned from his temporary exile to sit on the bench against Atletico Madrid, had encouraged fans not to harass him.

“What we don’t do is shoot ourselves in the foot,” said the coach, of his decision to keep calling up Dembele despite his refusal to sign a new contract or leave in January.

If it had been up to Xavi, he would not have omitted the forward for two matches, in a bid to force him out before the transfer window closed.

Instead, Xavi wanted to utilise the player president Joan Laporta had called ‘better than Mbappe’ in December and he had labelled potentially the ‘best in the world’ in his position on his presentation as the club’s new coach.

However Laporta and sporting director Mateu Alemany tried to play hardball with a player who has spent a considerable amount of time injured since arriving to replace Neymar from Borussia Dortmund in 2017 for a then club-record fee.

Xavi has been in Dembele’s corner from the start, and that trust and personal dedication to him has reaped dividends.

Dembele added a pair of assists to his goal against Athletic and then brilliantly set up two goals against Osasuna last weekend in a 4-0 rout.

Despite the hard work and explosive speed of Adama Traore, Dembele’s form shows they cannot be compared. He is a cut above, an elite winger, and finally able to show it.

A small hope is forming that Dembele may decide to stay at Barcelona beyond the summer, negotiating a new contract at a lower cost than the one his agent Moussa Sissoko was asking for.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s arrival is welcome support on and off the field, with Dembele instantly rekindling the connection they had at Borussia Dortmund.

“I would like him to stay for a year or two more,” said Aubameyang. “I am really happy playing with him. Since I have arrived hes been training really well and doing well. Hes setting up goals.

“I didnt have any doubts because I have known him for years. I provide the smiles because the most important thing is that hes happy!”

The question is whether Dembele and Sissoko can allow Barcelona’s tough negotiating tactics to become water under the bridge – nothing personal, just business – and if they are willing to reach a compromise financially.

Dembele’s form, arguably the best of his career to date, is one reason why he might be tempted to stay. Xavi has given him personal attention and care, and it seems to be improving his consistency.

Beyond occasional punctuality problems, the claims of unprofessionalism from his early years at Barca are gone.

Left out of the latest France squad, Dembele might also think if he stays and continues to perform at his current level he will be more likely to get back in, ahead of the Qatar World Cup.

Undoubtedly, he is maturing. His second-half appearance against Galatasaray helped Barcelona complete their Europa League last 16 comeback on Thursday and hold on to a narrow 2-1 lead in a tough atmosphere.

“For once in his life, he took good decisions,” wrote Xavier Bosch in Mundo Deportivo, highlighting Dembele’s improvement while also demonstrating the tone of voice – somewhere between sneering and exasperated – used in a lot of articles about the Frenchman that he could present as evidence for why he would prefer to start afresh elsewhere.

“He didn’t give up balls for ‘raffle’, he didn’t overplay it when he didn’t have to and he didn’t have huge gaps in concentration, but instead connected with (his team-mates). In Istanbul he knew to do what the team needed and he didn’t make a mistake.”

While some wonder whether his newfound determination to track back is to try and earn him a bigger contract with a new employer, the image of the night was Dembele giving Laporta a big hug, which again softly hints at potential reconciliation between club and player.

Barcelona’s project is undeniably exciting, and Dembele is said to be close with several of the younger players breaking through, like Gavi and Pedri, as well as Aubameyang.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.