Ousmane Dembele Has (Another) Second Chance at Barcelona

Juventus v FC Barcelona: Group G - UEFA Champions League
Ousmane Dembele took to the air when celebrating his goal against Juventus | Chris Ricco/Getty Images

Ousmane Dembele’s Barcelona career has been an interminable series of one step forwards, two steps back.

For every flash of skill, there is a careless over-complication on the ball. For every defence-splitting assist, there is a punctuality complaint. For every game-winning goal, there are months lost to injury.

On Wednesday night, the fleet-footed Frenchman’s performance against Juventus was yet another tip-toe in the right direction. But, given his track record, the reflex when watching Dembele shine is to wince in anticipation of the imminent set back.

Juventus v FC Barcelona: Group G - UEFA Champions LeagueJuventus v FC Barcelona: Group G - UEFA Champions League
Dembele gave Barcelona the lead in their Champions League group stage meeting with Juventus in midweek | Chris Ricco/Getty Images

Hovering menacingly in a pocket of space which perennially tempted Juve’s Danilo out of the backline, Dembele was a regular outlet for Barcelona on the right hand side, in a performance more comfortable than the 2-0 scoreline suggests.

As a quarter of an hour approached, Lionel Messi nonchalantly thumped a first-time, cross-field pass onto Dembele’s boot. While the Frenchman gathered speed, the black and white stripes furiously back-pedalled before his right-footed blast deflected into the net to make it 1-0.

Yet, not satisfied with a performance devoid of frustration, Dembele squandered the chance to double Barça’s lead on the hour-mark, attempting to return the favour and tee up Messi rather than fire off another goal-bound effort.

Almost exactly three years ago, against the same Italian opposition, Dembele showed similar glimpses of the talent which had persuaded Barcelona to make him the second-most expensive footballer ever.

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Dembele didn’t manage to trouble the scoresheet in his only previous appearance against Juventus | VI-Images/Getty Images

Yet, on the following weekend Dembele suffered the first injury of his senior career while attempting a backheel against Getafe in his debut La Liga start. The former Rennes and Borussia Dortmund winger had missed just three of the 81 available club games since making his debut in November 2015 but sat on Barcelona’s sidelines for the best part of four months. When he returned, he swiftly picked up a knock which hauled another four weeks onto his rapidly growing time on the treatment table.

Dembele mustered a little over 900 minutes of league football in his debut season, but was involved in nine goals in that limited time on the pitch. Despite this productivity, Dembele looked to have played his final minutes in a Barcelona shirt by the summer of 2020.

With Manchester United seemingly his most likely destination in the final days of the transfer market, incoming Barça manager Ronald Koeman made Dembele’s status in the squad abundantly clear, directly comparing the 23-year-old with two younger, less-experienced summer arrivals: “We had players on the bench in Pedri and Trincão who can bring more than Dembele can, to be decisive, to make changes in that sense.”

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Ronald Koeman (left) wasn’t initially too keen to turn to Dembele | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

However, while Dembele may never have truly dominated a game for Barcelona, the French World Cup winner has made a habit of being ‘decisive’ on the sporadic occasions he takes to the field.

By November of his second season in Spain Dembele, having enjoyed an injury-free start to the campaign, netted a 90th minute equaliser to silence the raucous Wanda Metropolitano crowd Diego Simeone had just been orchestrating. Dembele’s late strike against Atlético Madrid was not only his seventh goal of the campaign, but it was the fifth which had either levelled the score or put Barcelona ahead.

Yet, just as his opener against Juventus on Wednesday came in the aftermath of resisting Barcelona’s attempts to sell him, Dembele scored the equaliser against Atlético while still being punished for his latest bout of timekeeping transgressions.

In the weeks leading up to the match, Dembele had missed a training session after playing video games late into the night. Far from the first example of his poor punctuality – which his national team manager has described as ‘a little habit of his’ – the Spanish papers could barely contain their glee as they all pointed out Dembele’s perfect timing against Atlético.

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Dembele has two goals and one assist in five appearances this season | DeFodi Images/Getty Images

However, after firmly establishing his future lay at Barcelona this summer, rather than missing training sessions, Dembele has been taking part in extra practices during the October international break, with Koeman even tentatively encouraged by his improvement, telling Marca: “Dembele has a lot of quality, and little by little he will be physically well.”

After enduring the nadir of his fitness woes last season, Dembele, offering an electric burst of pace so few others in the squad boast, has begun the campaign with a bundle of minutes to ignite a flicker of hope that this time, this time, he can return to the mercurial figure which dazzled the fans of Rennes and Dortmund so much.

In the fourth season of his Barcelona career, Dembele enjoying a first prolonged run of good form and fitness would be typical with his timekeeping. But at just 23 years of age, there is (hopefully) plenty of football left to be played for the equally infuriating and inventive winger.