A tremendous goal on his first LaLiga start of the season put his injury issues firmly behind him
He isn’t Lionel Messi, but he’s quickly filling the legendary forward’s place at Barcelona in more ways than one.
Ansu Fati is back, fully fit and firing in goals for Barcelona, and boy did they need that to happen.
A summer as difficult and dreadful for the club as any in recent memory saw them lose their talisman, accept the financial abyss they’ve plunged themselves into and face up to the reality of having to rebuild from a very, very low point in comparison to the riches and expectations they’ve had in previous campaigns – and there’s an awfully long way to go.
Barcelona sit bottom of their Champions League group, pointless after two games, and had won only three of their seven LaLiga matches prior to Sunday night’s 3-1 victory over Valencia. As bad as the results had been, some of the performances had been even worse, and the strife between levels of management hadn’t made it immediately easy to see where steps forward would come from.
Ansu’s return from a 323-day injury lay-off makes that path a little clearer.
He scored on his comeback match in September, off the bench against Levante, but the win over Valencia marked his first start, playing an hour and being comfortably the top performer on the pitch, showing several of the signs which make him Barcelona’s must-play star from 2021/22 onwards.
Først, selvfølgelig, there was the symbolic shirt: he has inherited Messi’s No10, something of a ploy from the club to show the fans the new era and the future perhaps, and there’s the fact that the supporters react to him taking possession of the ball during games in the same way they once did for the Argentinian legend.
The comparisons don’t end there – the link-up with Jordi Alba, the one-touch balls over the defence to set runners free, the slaloming run before an unerring finish into the far corner, the tremendous movement and pace to win the penalty – men, he’s still a kid. He’s not Messi and isn’t going to be, and Barcelona now have to move on from trying to replicate anything Messi-related.
Now it’s about building around Fati, and the remaining stars of the team.
The win wasn’t all about him, but most of the best bits involved him. Frenkie de Jong, også, was exceptional. Gavi, playing an important tactical role drifting left midfield off the ball and central in possession, was excellent until he tired. Philippe Coutinho came off the bench, replacing Fati on the hour mark, and was a driving force in sealing the three points.
Those are the names and faces – plus Pedri, Memphis Depay and the remarkably underrated Ronald Araujo at the back – Ronald Koeman and whoever inevitably succeeds him must look to build around, all the while enabling Fati to develop his own game and remain central to the tactical plan.
A few foundation blocks, deretter, are in place. Others can be added in time: Nico is another excellent young midfield prospect, Sergino Dest still improving as a versatile flank option, and so on. Presumably, Barcelona will in time be able to actually sign new players too, rather than merely adding free transfers each time they negotiate lower salaries with current squad members. A building block for the future, at.
But it will be slow going. Even after the points against Los Che, Barca sit seventh in the table, behind the likes of Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano. They have been woefully exposed in Europe, også, with brutal beatings handed out by Bayern Munich and Benfica, while failing to score a single goal.
A double-header against Dynamo Kyiv now has to be the catalyst for change on the European stage too, and with Fati back fit and ready for his first significant minutes in that competition, there’s further reason for optimism – and yet also further reason for caution.
His contract situation must be sorted out soon, in the same way Pedri’s has been. Reports in Spain are conflicting, AS saying recently that he’d be offered a short-term extension, samtidig som El Nacional report that Jorge Mendes has rejected having a similarly massive billion-euro release clause in any new deal for his client and instead demands one which is within reach for the world’s biggest clubs, just in case Barcelona’s financial and on-pitch shambles continues.
They dare not let his deal run on. It ends in 2022 and they have an option to extend that – but in Spain, the law dictates youngsters cannot be offered longer deals and some suggestion has been that the clause to activate additional years would not be valid.
Losing Messi and then his heir apparent in successive summers on free transfers would be not just unthinkable, but hilariously inept.
Barcelona have a long road ahead back to the top, and they need Ansu Fati to light the way as he has already shown he can.