In the months after Lionel Messi’s painful departure, the Argentine was conspicuous by his absence at Barcelona.
Of course he was; Messi was the greatest player the club have ever had, and still the best player in the team until the day his contract ran out.
Messi was the name on everyone’s lips as Barca fell to defeats against Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Rayo Vallecano, Bayern Munich and Benfica. With him, would it have been different?
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Barcelona were lifeless, sinking without trace under Ronald Koeman, and after the Dutch coach was replaced by Xavi Hernandez in November, the team slowly began to stir.
Xavi’s team were more recognisable, but still a far cry from their best. They drew with Osasuna, Sevilla and Granada, lost at home against Real Betis and were eliminated from the Champions League after a 3-0 defeat at Bayern.
But in 2022, the team have moved up several gears. They put four past Atletico Madrid in a statement performance in February, then they did it again against Valencia - and Athletic Club - and Napoli - and Osasuna - and, most impressively, at Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid.
There are multiple reasons for their resurrection, from new signings Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ferran Torres, to the high press being restored along with Xavi’s other tactical tweaks.
But a big, underestimated factor is the return of Pedro Gonzalez - or, as you might know him, Pedri.
While Messi’s absence was mourned, Pedri’s went under the radar. After appearing in the first few games of the season - including a 4-2 win over Real Sociedad - he suffered a hamstring injury, which kept him out until January.
Not only were Barcelona missing their talisman and all-time record goalscorer, they were also missing the teenager who took La Liga by storm in his first campaign and has not stopped improving since.
Pedri’s return from injury, immediately snapping back to the remarkable level he showed both at times last season and with Luis Enrique as a key player in Spain’s run to the Euro 2020 semi-finals, has propelled Xavi’s Barcelona forward.
He is a key catalyst for their resurgence in La Liga, and their hopes of winning the Europa League, where they face Eintracht Frankfurt in the first leg of their quarter-final tie on Thursday.
Of course, it has not gone unnoticed in Catalunya. “Pedri, Pedri, Pedri,” chant the fans, - and the front covers of newspapers Diario Sport and Mundo Deportivo.
Pedri has become a fan favourite, Camp Nou’s new magician, filling the huge shoes Messi left behind, albeit from a different position, closer to a new Andres Iniesta, a comparison which has been made relentlessly, even by Xavi. And he should know.
“Pedri Potter” memes decorate social media, and Barcelona have leaned into the pop culture reference, selling his shirt in the club shop with a special tag.
“Attention!” it reads. “This jersey contains high doses of magic. It can be detrimental to your rivals. Property of the Prince of the Golden Boy.”
It is a fun idea, and there is a truth in it, with Pedri increasingly showing he has magic in his boots that few possess.
His nutmeg on Athletic Club’s Mikel Balenziaga in February drew fans to their feet, hands to their heads, but he also excels in less spectacular facets of the game.
He is agile, his passes fizz, they cannot be intercepted, and he has great vision of play.
Of course, what draws headlines are the big moments. His waltz into the box to score against Galatasaray in the Europa League was special, showing otherworldly calm in a fiery Istanbul atmosphere, and he pulled the same trick off again against Sevilla to earn Barcelona a 1-0 win on Sunday.
Sitting Ivan Rakitic and Diego Carlos down, before finishing from outside the area past the previously unbeatable Yassine Bono, flashing a shot right into the bottom corner.
“If I see legs in front, I cut back,” said Pedri, explaining simply something which stunned over 76,000 fans at Camp Nou.
If one thing was lacking from his game last season, it was goals, netting only four in 52 appearances. This season he has four in 19, and it would be five, had his rocket against Valencia not brushed against Aubameyang on its way in.
Pedri is already one of the world’s top midfielders, and perhaps even the best.
“Pedri gives us poise, he doesn’t lose the ball, he should be transcendental,” said Xavi. “There is no talent in the world like Pedri, and he is only 19.”
Kevin De Bruyne, who scored for Manchester City against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday, might disagree, but at 30 his time at the top is reaching its final years, while Pedri’s has barely begun.
“He dominates space and time to perfection,” said Xavi, prompting Radio Marca show 'La Pizarra de Quintana' to compare him to Doc Emmett Brown and his DeLorean, rather than Harry Potter.
That works, too, because Pedri plays - and sometimes speaks - like a 35-year-old Barca player who has reached the end of their career, gone back in time to adolescence and is starting again from scratch, with all his prior knowledge in the bank.
Maybe somewhere in the Grays Sports Almanac there was a photo of Rakitic and Diego Carlos on the floor, and so Pedri knew just what to do against Sevilla.
What used to be ‘Messi’s garden’ is now being called ‘Pedri’s garden’, and the chant fans have for him is sung in the same reverential intonation. They see him as the leader of this new generation, the best player in this current side and a key figure in the Barcelona project for the next five to 10 years.
“I don’t think I am the leader, we all are,” said Pedri after the 4-1 thrashing of Valencia.
Just wait until he realises how good he is, because what he can do then will be scary.