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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele beginning to justify his worth at Catalan club

French forward has enjoyed his best week at the Primera Liga leaders and seems to be putting criticism of indiscipline and lack of professionalism behind him

French forward Ousmane Dembele, centre, has been brilliant for Barcelona all week. AFP
French forward Ousmane Dembele, centre, has been brilliant for Barcelona all week. AFP

Ten minutes before half time at the Camp Nou on Sunday evening, Ousmane Dembele took a corner. As so often happens when the young Frenchman gets the ball, it did not reach its intended target.

Instead it was cleared back to him and the 21-year-old took his time before floating a curling cross with his luminous yellow left boot just above the heads of Villarreal’s defenders. Gerard Pique was waiting to head it in and give Barcelona the lead.

Pique made sure that he celebrated with Dembele, as did Lionel Messi. He deserved it, for he spent much of the first half creating danger down the right, where he linked well with Nelson Semedo. Earlier on in the game, Dembele left Alfonso Pedraza dizzy after getting past him four times in moves of which Johan Cruyff would have been proud.

Dembele is fast and direct, he attempts more dribbles than any Barca player and he is two-footed. He is not a natural fit for Ernesto Valverde’s pragmatic and orderly side, but he brings excitement whenever he gets the ball.

Barca have long been about excitement and thrilling football. Dembele delivers that, though he is still as inconsistent as many of the best 21-year-olds and is not 50 games into his Barca career.

Two minutes after the break, it was Pablo Fornals' turn to be left dizzied by Dembele’s brilliance. Twenty seconds later, Dembele hit a low right-foot cross in front of the Villarreal defenders. It found Messi, who nearly scored. The cross came from the left, not the right where Dembele played in a front three to the right of Philippe Coutinho and Messi.

And he brought more raptures from the crowd with 15 minutes to play when he sprinted to stop a ball going out and turned what should have been a Villarreal throw in to a Barca attack.

Villarreal, regular top-six finishers, are 17th. Not for the first time, they are struggling with the demands of an European and domestic campaign, but they worked hard against Spain’s league leaders.

It was Messi and not Dembele who set up Barca’s second – a first goal for 20-year-old Carles Alena – to make it a 2-0 win. But it was a good night for Dembele, the fourth most expensive footballer on the planet.

His huge €105 million (Dh437.5m) fee from Borussia Dortmund last year included a further €80m should he become the best player in the world. Barca also would have to pay Borussia Dortmund €40m if they sold Dembele – figures that came to light recently when he was being linked with moves away from the Camp Nou.

People talk about him because he divides opinion.

He was injured for the first half of his first season in Spain, but he was also accused of being unprofessional off the field. His diet was questioned, he was criticised by his teammates for being late for training and he did not turn up for training at the start of November having overslept.

He was dropped for the home game against Betis, which Barca lost.

If his club cut him slack for being young and his manager offers him help, Barca fans also know there is a serious talent there. Dembele comes in for criticism online, but the crowd in the stadium is more forgiving – and 13 minutes into the second half against Villarreal, Barca’s vocal fans began singing “Ousmane Dembele” to the tune of France’s national anthem La Marseillaise.

They also sang it last week when he scored a 90th-minute equaliser at Atletico Madrid, putting the ball through Jan Oblak’s legs. He had been on the pitch for 10 minutes, which is more normal of late. He had started his side’s first seven league games of the season, but only one of the last six, a sign of Valverde’s frustrations with him.

Yet Dembele scores important goals. He got the winner against Sevilla’s in the Spanish Super Cup, the winners against the Reals of Valladolid and Sociedad, and the equaliser against Rayo Vallecano. He does not play well through the game and he loses the ball too often. But he is a delight to watch – an inconsistent, contradictory delight.

“Dembele was very difficult to stop, he is a player with enormous qualities and virtues, one of them is speed, it is very difficult to stop him,” Villarreal manager Javier Calleja said.

His opposite number Valverde said last week that Dembele has attributes which other players do not have. After losing Neymar and Andres Iniesta, the Catalans need that.

Sunday was also only the third time in his 18 Barca games this season that he has played for 90 minutes. With an assist midweek in the 2-1 win at PSV Eindhoven in the Uefa Champions League, last week was Dembele’s best since he joined Barca.

This indicates that he might be closer to being worth that vast fee.

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