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Who is Barcelona ace Riqui Puig? La Masia product could revitalise Setien's midfield

7:00 AM EDT 6/25/20
Riqui Puig Xavi Quique Setien Barcelona GFX
The youngster has been tipped to do great things for years but only now is he on the verge of becoming a regular in the Blaugrana's first-team squad

When people talk about 'Barcelona DNA', they are essentially talking about Riqui Puig.

He was born in Terrassa, like Xavi Hernandez. He joined Barcelona from Jabac, like Sergio Busquets. And he glides about the pitch, like Andres Iniesta.

After an International Champions Cup clash with Barca in August 2018, then-AC Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso revealed that he had already heard about Puig.

What he witnessed that evening in Santa Clara merely confirmed the rumours: even by La Masia standards, the kid was exceptional.

"Riqui is spectacular," Gattuso said at his post-match press conference. "Even though they [Barca] have players that look like kids, the way they handle the ball amazes me.

"It's the beauty of football. It's like poetry."

AC Milan's Brand Ambassador, Daniele Massaro – a man who scored two goals in the epic destruction of Johan Cruyff's 'Dream Team' in 1994 – was so blown away by what he saw from Puig, that he asked for the teenager's shirt after the game.

"He plays with real personality, always with his head up," the former forward told reporters. "We could be looking at the new Iniesta."

Why, then, is Puig only now poised to feature regularly in the Blaugana's first team?

One of the main reasons many Barca fans never truly took to former coach Ernesto Valverde was his alleged reluctance to rely on La Masia products, chief among them Puig.

It was Valverde who included Puig in that 2018 pre-season tour of the United States – less than six months after the youngster had made his debut for Barca B – while he also gave him his first taste of competitive action at senior level, in a Copa del Rey clash with Cultural Leonesa in December of that year.

Puig would go on to make his Liga bow, against Huesca, before the season was out, but many supporters grew increasingly dissatisfied with Valverde's handling of the 'jewel of the academy'.

In the coach's defence, it was not as if he were completely overlooking youngsters – Ansu Fati became the youngest goalscorer in Champions League history on Valverde's watch. However, Puig did not see a single minute of first-team action during the first half of the current campaign.

Consequently, by the turn of the year, one of Barca's brightest prospects was publicly admitting that he might have to leave Camp Nou, the stadium he had first visited as a three-year-old.

The frustration did not just stem from his lack of game time with the senior squad; it was mainly down to the fact that he was no longer even training with them regularly.

"If I don't have any minutes, I will have to make a decision," he admitted in November.

However, Barca's surprising decision to sack Valverde in January and replace him with Quique Setien suddenly, and significantly, changed Puig's prospects.

The 61-year-old Setien may have arrived at Camp Nou without a single major trophy on his CV, but not only was he an avid follower of the teachings of Johan Cruyff, the spiritual king of Camp Nou, he had also developed a reputation for blooding and developing young talent in his two previous jobs, at Las Palmas and Real Betis.

Therefore, it felt unsurprising when Setien brought Puig on in his first Liga game as coach, against Granada.

For many, the decision to replace Ivan Rakitic with Puig was also a joyously symbolic moment, a signalling of the changing of the guard. It did not quite pan out that way, though.

While Puig impressed in his very next outing, a start – and an assist – in a Copa del Rey win over Cultural Leonesa, he barely featured over the next two months.

However, when Setien needed to energise his midfield against a stubborn Athletic Club on Tuesday night, he turned to Puig.

What really stood out during the 20-year-old's 35-minute cameo was not his incredible technique, but his self-belief.

Indeed, it was impossible not to go all the way back to that pre-season game against Milan and think of Xavi's take on Puig's performance.

"The truth is that he is a boy who breathes talent," the Barca icon told Mundo Deportivo. "He has self-confidence, personality, does not hide and asks for the ball."

He did it constantly against Athletic. Rakitic may have been the match-winner on the night, but it was Puig who changed the entire flow of the game when he came on in place of Arthur, re-energising Barca with his constant movement and crisp passing.

Consequently, there are now calls for him to start against Celta Vigo on Saturday.

It is more likely that he will again be on the bench. But two years after wowing Gattuso and Massaro in Santa Clara, Puig is finally poised to become a first-team regular at Barca.

He has got the DNA, he has got the talent, he has got the self-confidence and now, it seems, he has finally got the chance to revitalise Barcelona's midfield.