Dembele's early Champions League heroics raise more problems for Barcelona

Recent fine form in front of goal show the Frenchman can succeed, but his indiscipline continues to be an issue for those in charge at Camp Nou

Late for training, but lethal in front of goal. Barcelona are still at a quandary over just what to do with Ousmane Dembele, with directors and fans alike divided over how to deal with the young talent. 

Dembele, 21, has had to face up with incessant criticism over the last few weeks thanks to his now-infamous punctuality problems. 

As recently as Sunday the ex-Borussia Dortmund man had overslept, arriving to practice 50 minutes late. It was not the first time: on previous occasions he had failed to even show up to training, while famously on November 8 the Frenchman had gone off the grid while his club frantically attempted to track his whereabouts. 

Coach Ernesto Valverde acted, banishing him from the squad as punishment, a fate also shared by Arturo Vidal, against Betis. Dembele’s team-mates, meanwhile, showed their willingness to try and rein him in. 

“We have to help him understand that football is a 24-hour job which you must experience from the first minute to the last,” Gerard Pique signalled following defeat to Betis. Luis Suarez, no stranger to disciplinary issues himself, also chipped in: “He must be more responsible in some things, look at the more experienced players he has around him.” 

While Dembele’s latest transgression hit him in the pocket, in the shape of a €100,000 fine, he was not punished with further exile from the first team. That decision was rewarded on the pitch with a memorable goal to open the scoring against Tottenham on Tuesday, picking up the ball from deep and dancing through the Spurs defence before finishing past Hugo Lloris just seven minutes into proceedings. 

For a man accustomed to tardy arrivals, it was an instant response to his detractors. And the goal also promises to mend broken bridges between Dembele and certain fans who feel that he is not showing the commitment and application required of a Blaugrana player. 

Valverde, however, gave an ambiguous if light-hearted response to the goal after the final whistle blew on a 1-1 draw against the Londoners. “The Dembele case is not finished,” the coach told reporters from Camp Nou. 

“Tomorrow [Wednesday] we are back in training…”

There were no such punctuality problems on Wednesday, as Dembele turned up on time for the post-match session. Those in charge at Camp Nou, however, are also concerned about how quickly their internal strife with the forward has become public knowledge. Having seen Dembele snub two of his previous employers, Rennes and BVB, and go effectively on strike in order to force a transfer, directors are wary of all-out confrontation. 

“We knew all about his attitude and that of those around him,” Urbano Ortega, a former member of Barca’s technical staff, admitted to COPE. “Since he is young we thought there would be time to set him straight.”

Dembele’s obvious talents, not to mention his mammoth transfer fee and some €40 million in outstanding payments to Dortmund, have discouraged Barca from selling him on at a loss. But constant discipline problems are beginning to test the patience of those in charge, to the point that they were ready to listen to offers as early as last summer – offers that failed to materialise. 

On the pitch, though, Tuesday’s goal might just serve as a turning point. Those stern words heard from team-mates have turned into praise, with the promise of more minutes for a player who has been used sparingly by Valverde as Barca approach the end of the first half of their campaign.

“We should not kill Dembele, we would have to kill him if there is no other choice, which is not the case,” Barca great Andres Iniesta joked in the build-up to the Spurs clash. For now, Barca believe that their wayward talent can still turn himself around. If he cannot, a decision will have to be made whether to accept his failings or remove him from contention.

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