Ousmane Dembele’s injuries are no longer surprising, only disappointing. And they beg the question – can Barcelona really rely on the seemingly fragil Frenchman?
The 21-year-old winger is unquestionably talented. Supremely quick, two-footed, remarkably skilful – when Dembele is at his best he is impossible for defences to handle.
His opponents don’t know which way to turn, with the ‘Mosquito’ capable of beating them on either side.
Unfortunately, the man Barcelona bought to replace Neymar in August 2017 for a then club-record €105 million (£89m/$118m), including add-ons, has proven a constant headache for the Catalan giants.
As well as reports of unprofessionalism and difficulty adapting to life at the club, which were successfully dealt with, Dembele has been plagued by injuries since touching down in Catalonia.
His latest arrived after just three minutes in Barcelona’s 2-0 defeat by Celta Vigo on Saturday, with Maxi Gomez and Iago Aspas striking for the hosts.
“Ousmane Dembele has a hamstring injury in his right leg,” Barcelona said in a statement released during the second half. “Tomorrow [Sunday] further tests will be taken to determine the exact extent of the injury.”
Beyond the chance to look at a few potential future Barca stars – Jean-Clair Todibo in particular impressed, until he also went off injured – and Celta’s bid to avoid relegation, there was little world interest in this game, until Dembele’s blow.
Celta offered a guard of honour to the champions, although the truth is few of Ernesto Valverde’s starters here had any significant impact on their title win.
However, by the fifth minute he had been replaced by debutant Alex Collado, with his leg wrapped and iced on the bench.
Dembele’s injury comes at an awful time, with Barcelona heading to Anfield on Tuesday.
Last season, the Catalans were eliminated by Roma in the quarter-finals having won the first leg 4-1, tumbling 3-0 in the Italian capital.
One of the problems in that clash was that Valverde left Dembele on the bench until the 85th minute.
His speed and direct play would have been important in countering Roma and, leaning from his mistake, Valverde might have started Dembele at Anfield as Barca look to finish off Liverpool on the break.
The coach picked him to play at Balaidos to help him find form, which he’s lacked since returning from his previous injury problem.
Between 45 minutes to an hour against Celta at a good level might have been enough to earn Dembele a start over Philippe Coutinho on Merseyside.
Now, he will be watching from home and praying his season isn’t over, desperately wishing he can play a part in the Copa del Rey final and a potential Champions League final in Madrid too.
Given they have coped well without him this season, the real concern for Barcelona is the bigger picture. Is this how it will always be with Dembele?
The Frenchman’s injuries tend to be sustained without impact, hinting there is something wrong with his physical training or perhaps even mentally, with stress a potential factor in muscle problems.
With the burden of being Neymar’s replacement and his price tag weighing down on him, Dembele suffered a hamstring injury in September 2017, keeping him out for four months.
Shortly after returning last season he was ruled out again, and this year hasn’t been much better.
Dembele suffered an ankle injury this season and then a hamstring problem against Olympique Lyon in the Champions League last 16, which kept him out for a month.
““Sometimes I explain to members of the club and the board, what we are doing is bringing right now very young players to the club, young players that we think are very talented,” said Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu, talking about life after Lionel Messi, citing Dembele as one of their most important prospects.
Speaking only of his pure talent, Dembele is capable of leading this Barcelona team. But he is proving untrustworthy on a physical level.
One of Messi’s most remarkable attributes is his consistency, which Dembele badly lacks, with injuries playing havoc with his form.
Can Dembele can play a part in the remainder of the team’s treble bid? That is the short-term issue. The long-term issue is more complex and more worrying.