Call us stupid but we half-expected Ousmane Dembele’s form to fall off a cliff this season.
For years, Dembele was a byword for Barcelona’s wastefulness in the transfer market. The €105million man drove coaches to distraction with his lack of application, poor diet and timekeeping that was awful even by Spanish standards.
His contract, which was due to expire last May, was viewed as a millstone around the club’s neck. Fans couldn’t wait to get shot of Dembele, who attracted interest from English circuses Chelsea and Manchester United.
But something strange happened during the second half of last season; Dembele started playing… well. Shots started hitting the back of the net, crosses flew onto the heads of their intended targets as if tracked by UPS and some Camp Nou regulars swore they even saw him break into a sweat.
It was enough for Barcelona to extend Dembele’s contract until 2024, albeit with a 40% pay cut. Job done. The France international was free to explore the city’s nightlife and improve his Fortnite score without the looming threat of unemployment.
Except that hasn’t happened. Having finally got the bit between his teeth, Dembele has attacked the new season with the relish of a newly-released hostage presented with a Chinese buffet.
Viktoria Plzen were his most recent victims. The Czech champions had drawn the short straw in the Champions League group stages – in terms of progression anyway, because Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan are three sensational away days – and visibly soiled themselves whenever Dembele got the ball.
Part of the 25-year-old’s charm is his sheer unpredictability; who’d have thought Dembele would channel Sunday League football by losing possession and winning the ball back with a slide tackle we’re legally obliged to describe as industrial?
Having demonstrated the scrappiness of Scooby Doo’s nephew, Dembele whipped a beautiful cross onto the head of Robert Lewandowski. We won’t insult your intelligence by telling you what happened next.
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 7, 2022
At this point, Plzen were probably wishing for the final whistle and a chance to scurry back to their homeland. While it doesn’t speak much for the competitiveness of the Champions League group stage, the match took on an exhibition feel after the break.
But both sides traded goals before Dembele took centre stage once again. Ambling towards the penalty area, like a tourist getting lost on Las Ramblas and deciding to roll with it, he elegantly played a one-two with Frenkie de Jong.
Perhaps the opposition defence were caught off-guard. Perhaps they were tired. Or, like everyone else in the stadium, perhaps they didn’t expect Dembele to scoop a left-footed pass over their heads and into the path of Ferran Torres.
The Camp Nou crowd paid due reverence to Dembele’s moment of class as team-mates ran over to congratulate him.
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 8, 2022
“He [Dembele] is happy, he provides assists, he makes a difference, he is a dagger down the flank and he is being decisive. I have seen few players with that ability in one on one,” Xavi said after this 5-1 thrashing.
“He is at the level of the best Neymar. He had suffered a lot in recent years and he deserves what he is now. There is no pure winger who can come out on both sides like he does.
“He is a good kid and he has to take advantage of these characteristics. He is capable of making the difference and he is doing so.”
It’s undeniable that Xavi’s arrival last November was the kick up the derriere that Dembele needed. Having coasted throughout four years at Barcelona, the forward is now finally fulfilling his potential.
And all without the carrot of a lucrative new contract. We were wrong to ever doubt him.
By Michael Lee