Ousmane Dembele’s contract situation and potential ability to negotiate a pre-contract arrangement with another club in January is shaping up to be one of the hottest sagas this winter.
The Frenchman’s deal with Barcelona is running out, with both parties playing a dangerous game.
Recent reports suggest that the club has given the 24-year-old an ultimatum to renew, while Dembele’s camp is keen to stall in order to evaluate all possibilities – that is to say, which clubs’ interest could bear fruit amid attention from the Premier League, Serie A and the Bundesliga.
However, while Barcelona simply cannot afford to invest in top quality options for their squad, retaining a player like Dembele is a critical necessity.
The early stages of the Xavi Hernandez era at the Camp Nou is a clear indication of why. Having missed the new boss’ first match in charge through injury, Dembele has since had cameos in Barca’s subsequent three fixtures – a 0-0 draw against Benfica, a 3-1 victory over Villarreal and most recently a 1-0 defeat to Real Betis – and provided a thoroughly influential impact in all three.
While his influence may have only lead to his side bagging a late winner against Villarreal, his match-altering performances throughout have been undeniable.
Saturday afternoon’s disappointing loss to Betis was born out of a surprising lack in intensity, imagination and drive throughout the squad – Gavi’s worrying departure from proceedings in the first half did not help, of course.
But, throughout the match, this underwhelmingly flat mentality was epidemic.
The midfield due of Riqui Puig and Nico Gonzalez, although putting in battling performances, were largely clumsy when attempting to progress play – and the front three weren’t even worth acknowledging.
Philippe Coutinho started brightly but faded out completely midway through the opening period, Memphis Depay was shamefully thrustless and seemingly uninterested throughout and Abde Ezzalzouli, who actually impressed with various facets of his game, simply wasn’t able to penetrate the opposition back line.
One moment, however, changed all that – Dembele’s introduction. As soon as Barcelona’s number seven entered the field of play, La Blaugrana looked a different prospect.
An immediate injection of speed, intensity and directness visibly shook the Betis defence, with Dembele running his opposition ragged. His sharp feints, blistering dribbling and the willingness to make something happen were utterly refreshing on a fairly humid Catalan afternoon.
The 24-year-old was desperately unlucky not to have come away with at least one goal to his name, working space brilliantly before seeing shots drift ever so narrowly wide on three separate occasions. He was also unfortunate not to have registered an assist, playing one delicious floated diagonal across the penalty area to an onrushing Jordi Alba – the move came to nothing, of course.
All in all, he was central to everything after coming on. He was productive, stylish, dangerous and the leading light among – this is going to sound harsh – a depressingly dim group on the day.
Joan Laporta’s recent claim that the winger is better than compatriot Kylian Mbappe may be complete b******s, but one thing is clear – Dembele has been Barcelona’s fountain of opportunity every time he has come onto the pitch in recent weeks.
The way he is incessantly searched for by colleagues is evidence enough of his sheer quality and match-winning ability. In Barcelona’s current financial predicament, replacing that just won’t happen. He may not be the finished article, but his competence and influence are undoubted. Just get that contract renewal sorted, Joan.