MADRID: Barcelona will rest their hopes in the El Clasico on a young player who until recently was unreliable in the clutch. So will Real Madrid.

Barca travel to Real on Saturday in what is set to be one of the most pivotal El Clasico meetings in recent memory, with both sides fast closing in on stuttering Atletico Madrid at the top of the La Liga table.

The Catalans, unbeaten in 19 league games, are only one point adrift of Atletico, who visits Real Betis on Sunday. Real are right in the mix in third place, two points behind Barca.

Barca forward Ousmane Dembele appeared to be hopelessly prone to injury before this season, while Real winger Vinicius Jr. had developed the maddening habit of failing to finish off his scoring chances.

That was before stellar performances by both earlier this week.

Before this season, the 23-year-old Dembele had been written off as a bust. Reeling from the unwanted exit of Neymar to Paris St Germain in 2017, Barca acquired Dembele after paying Borussia Dortmund a then-club record 147 million euros, including add-ons.

Accused of having overpaid for the untested player, club officials lauded Dembele’s ability to pass and shoot equally well with both feet and his one-on-one dribbling ability. But a series of injuries cost the Frenchman a total of 80 games in his first three campaigns at Camp Nou.

That has all changed since Ronald Koeman took over as coach last year and Dembele altered his fitness training.

At first criticized for not fitting into Barca’s passing style, Dembele is now credited with diversifying Barca’s attack with his solo efforts and unbridled confidence to shoot from long range.

The winger has only missed five games this season, and his 10 goals make him the team’s third-leading scorer behind Lionel Messi (29) and Antoine Griezmann (14). None was bigger than Dembele’s 90th-minute volley to snatch a 1-0 win over Valladolid on Monday that tightened the title race.

“Dembele’s progress this season has been very good,” Koeman said after the win over Valladolid. “He has improved a lot. The key has been his ability to stay on the field.”

Dembele will very likely start alongside Messi at Alfredo di Stfano Stadium, where he will face a Real team without injured centre-back Sergio Ramos.

On the other side of the ball, a young Brazilian dressed in white will be trying to pick apart Barca’s backline with his blistering speed.

In a departure from years of huge star signings, Real took a chance on the budding Vinicius in 2018 when they paid Flamengo 45 million euros when he was only 17 years old. After a brief spell with Real’s reserve team, he was thrust into the limelight at 18.

His hunger to impress won praise at first, but he soon became known for his poor finishing. Again and again, he would blow by defenders only to scuff shots wide or push the ball into the hands of the goalkeeper.

Then came his performance on Tuesday, when Vinicius outplayed Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold by scoring twice in a 3-1 victory in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals.

“We know what a player Vini is when he has space,” Real coach Zinedine Zidane said. “I am happy for him. He needed to score to boost his confidence.”

Beyond his six goals this season, Vinicius causes havoc in opposing defenses with his runs and creates room for striker Karim Benzema, who leads Real with 24 goals.

Benzema has warned that Real need to keep Messi, who has scored 12 goals in his last 10 league appearances, out of the game if they are to get the three points.

“It’ll be a tough game against a side who like to dominate the ball,” Benzema said. “They’ve got a great goalkeeper and of course Messi, the player who does everything for Barcelona. We need to be wary of him because he’s so, so dangerous. Just like in the first meeting this season we’ll go out on the pitch looking for the win, it’s a final for us.”

Messi’s 45th Clasico could also be his last. But success for Barca would be another significant check-point too in what has been an uplifting few months, the start of a recovery that has run alongside the ongoing uncertainty of what Messi will decide this summer.

Messi’s every goal and glance this season has been analysed for possible indications as to the 33-year-old’s thinking but what is clear is how the atmosphere at Barca has changed since he asked to leave for free last August.

Joan Laporta’s election as club president, replacing Josep Maria Bartomeu, has brought enthusiasm and, crucially, a sense of direction again.

It may not be enough, given Barca were also convincingly beaten by Paris St Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League, the competition Messi centres round more than anything else.

Beating Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Copa del Rey or even Real Madrid and Atletico to the title in La Liga could still see Messi bid farewell.

But if this is to be his last Clasico, 16 years after his first, 44 games that have included 26 goals and two hat-tricks, Messi might see it now as an extra season well spent, the sense of deflation and bitterness gone, and his own place in the revival secure.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2021

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