Dembélé got Barça out of a major hurry in the last minute of the game against Valladolid. The Frenchman hit a shot that put the Catalans within a point of Atlético in the wake of the Alfredo di Stéfano classic. Barça’s surprising career can also be explained by Dembélé’s amazing way of being and playing. The match felt like a shot to Koeman’s team until the forward holed a left foot without the possibility of a reply from Masip. Relentless and admirable in the pursuit of the leadership, winning 40 points out of 42, Barça was dizzy with the euphoria generated by feeling so close to the head of the League.
Koeman no longer pays attention to the rival, not at the moment and not even in the circumstances when the line-up sings, but for four games, from the one he faced PSG in a meeting of maximum demand in the Champions League, he bets on the same players and, therefore, prefers De Jong as the third center-back, even after recovering Araujo. The Dutch midfielder ensures a clean exit of the ball from the Barça area and allows Griezmann to be kept as a starter. The Frenchman has become a team player who attacks and defends so that Dembélé can risk dribbling and Messi maneuvers as a hook, as intimidating in passing as in shooting, top scorer of the tournament (23 goals in the League, 19 in total during 2021).
The reliability of the captain, equally decisive in the simple days as in the difficult ones, and the dynamics of good results of the team, undefeated since the embarrassment against Cádiz in December, conditioned the initial game of Barça. Barça football was flat, dispassionate and rhetorical in the search for Messi. Accustomed to winning, Koeman’s boys took victory for granted against an opponent who is competing to escape the relegation zone and who arrived at the Camp Nou with up to 12 casualties. Valladolid only needed to finish off his good deployment, vertical in the transitions and skillful in the openings to the sides, pending the head of Kodro, who finished off the crossbar on the clearest occasion of Sergio’s neat and worked team.
The Valladolid coach surprised Koeman with the design of the game, also protected in a 3-5-2, more effective than that of Barcelona. The azulgranas walked without pace of play or finesse in the pass, too contemplative, more aware of the referee than of Masip. There was no depth or arrivals from the sides and only a shot from Pedri from outside the area on the last play before the break attested to the life of Barcelona. The shot hit the post after the Valladolid goalkeeper intervened. The competitive tension of the pucelanos contrasted with the laziness of Barça. The situation required the intervention of the Barça coach and Koeman opted to change the drawing (4-3-3) after advancing De Jong’s position to form a 4-3-3.
—Jaleados in the changing room tunnel by Messi – “We have to get him out anyway!”, “One more mark or it will get complicated!” -, the Barça players got closer to the opposite field, pressed more after losing the ball, they began to open the game on the bands of Dest and Alba. Valladolid, however, did not falter in defense and their selective arrivals were as intimidating as they were poorly defended by Barça. At game time, the two teams had the same chances (two) after Griezmann missed a header on an empty goal and Olaza finished off the net from Ter Stegen’s frame. The meeting became an exchange of blows in the open field, with Braithwaite and Trincão already on the field, Griezman replaced once again.
There was no way, however, to find Masip’s goal. Nervous and out of temper, the Catalans finally survived due to two fortunate actions, one caused by the referee’s intervention, when he expelled Óscar Plano, and the second culminated by Dembélé in a Barça act of faith. De Jong crossed the ball from the right, Araujo jumped up and touched his head towards the far post and appeared there to make it 1-0 in the 90th minute.
The goal was celebrated with jubilation by Koeman’s boys and outraged Valladolid after protesting a penalty by Alba. After all, from the Barça point of view, the game was always considered a hindrance on the way to the Madrid clash. There was even more fear that Messi and De Jong could be reprimanded and cause Valdebebas to be dropped than the result until the 90th minute was reached. And then Dembélé appreciated.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.