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Real Madrid's Hakimi is who Barcelona need on road to recovery

10:41 AM EST 11/7/19
Achraf Hakimi Borussia Dortmund 2019-20
The 21-year-old is displaying all of his frightening potential in the UCL, and is the ideal replacement, albeit belated, for Dani Alves at Camp Nou

If their current standing in La Liga was not enough of a tell, Barcelona’s limp draw against Sparta Prague was a portrait of a ship listing nowhere.

Not even with Lionel Messi could Ernesto Valverde’s side avoid the unwanted record of not scoring at home in a Uefa Champions League Group Stage match for the first time since 2012.

Even the best player to ever kick a football needs help every now and again; there is only so much he can do, only so far he can drag a side so completely lacking in dynamism or any kind of explosive energy.

As Arsene Wenger so eloquently posited pulling punditry duty, this present atrophy has been a long time coming.

Replacing, as he said, the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, generational players that they are, may be easier in theory than in practise, but clearly this is a club that has strayed from what once made it great.

If they are to return, they must disregard the desirable in favour of the expedient. Even when what is expedient belongs to the enemy.

Ergo, the first step in coming out of the rot is for Barcelona to steal Achraf Hakimi away from Real Madrid.

There may be no present analogues for what Xavi and Iniesta were (Valverde’s idea has been to use Frenkie de Jong as a facsimile of the latter, but without allowing him to actually, you know, dribble), but there is more than a touch of the Dani Alves in what Hakimi brings to the game: his unfettered movement and unparalleled vision of the football pitch challenges the orthodoxy, and is reminiscent of the sort of avant-garde thinking that Alves and Barcelona typified when the going was good.

While the Camp Nou crowd groaned, the Morocco international was leading a comeback for the ages in Westphalia. Ahead 2-0 and coasting coming into the second period, Inter simply had no answer as their hosts upped the tempo in front of the Yellow Wall; taking the fight to them was Hakimi, who has now scored all but one of Borussia Dortmund’s five goals in the Champions League this season.

It was his double on the road against Slavia Prague – “Hakimi sat on his motorbike and drove away from everybody,” Czech goalkeeper Ondrej Kolar gushed after that game – that gave Lucien Favre’s side their first win in the competition this term.

Against Inter, his brace bookended Julian Brandt’s equaliser, both beginning and completing the comeback to take them up to second in the group.

For the first, he tucked in narrow from his nominal right-back position to recover the ball, laid it off to the left, and just kept on running, eventually arriving in the box and scuffing a finish past Samir Handanovic after pulling off the back of Diego Godin.

The winner saw him start and finish an attack down the right, playing a one-two before steaming in behind and finishing with relish.

It is difficult to remember a full-back who has so completely taking ownership of a club since Alves began to regularly lay claim to global primacy in the position while still at Sevilla.

It has been three years since the Brazilian left Barcelona, and he is now seeing out the twilight of his career at Sao Paolo, but in much the same way that the Blaugrana failed to replace their legendary midfield, they never replaced him either.

Sure, Sergi Roberto has been game, and Nelson Semedo has matches where he looks like he is just about to take that leap. However, games like the one against Slavia are all too common: the Portugal international flatters to deceive, and struggled in both phases, unable to get the better of Nigeria international Peter Olayinka either in defence or going forward.

It was not for a lack of trying, however; Jindrich Trpisovsky had his wingers very deep, and so there was a lot more imagination required than simply sprinting in a straight line. 

With Jordi Alba also unable to complete the game, Barcelona were utterly unable to ask any searching questions of their obdurate visitors.

In such a scenario, it is precisely the sort of movement that Hakimi offers that can so utterly unbalance deep blocks – he showed precisely that much in putting the Czechs to the sword on matchday two, but it also calls to mind how his diagonal runs from full-back destroyed Atletico Madrid last season in this same competition.

There would be a major complication, however, in that the player belongs to Real Madrid, and is very highly regarded. The intense, seismic rivalry between the two clubs would also, in the minds of most, preclude any sort of interest.

However, Hakimi has himself stated it “wouldn’t be a disappointment or failure not to return to Madrid”, and he only has to consider his prospects were he to return: Dani Carvajal is still only 27, and Real made a significant investment to bring in Ferland Mendy as first an understudy, and then a replacement for Marcelo.

To go from the highs at Dortmund to the bench at the Bernabeu would be damaging to his growth and development, and would inevitably stall a player Trpisovsky believes “will be among three or four [of the] best full-backs in the world” in a few years.

The 21-year-old simply cannot afford to kick his heels on the bench, and the tantalizing promise of his present momentum is what Barcelona would ideally seek to appeal to.

If they make the play, it could be a coup for the ages in more ways than one: the Camp Nou would once more be home to potentially the finest attacking full-back in football, and they would also be one-upping the old enemy.