Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati - the two shining lights in Barcelona's dismal season
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This article was published by Sportskeeda.com on July 17, 2020. Here's a link: https://www.sportskeeda.com/football/riqui-puig-ansu-fati-two-shining-lights-barcelona-s-dismal-season
Lionel Messi and co have spoilt the fan base to the extent that FC Barcelona are expected to win trophies every season. Going by those staggering standards, the 2019-20 season can be termed a disaster for Barcelona.
They were knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by Athletic Bilbao, eliminated from the Spanish Super Cup by Atletico Madrid and came up second-best against their arch-rivals Real Madrid in the La Liga.
Without any quick-fire, drastic change in their performances, the dream of Barcelona's long-overdue sixth Champions League title seems fanciful. A trophyless season at Barcelona is a distinct possibility, which for a large chunk of Cules is an unthinkable proposition.
Nevertheless, Barcelona's on-field displays weren't the club's biggest lows this season. Barcelona, under the presidency of Josep Maria Bartomeu, have been a breeding ground for scandals and controversies. In this season, things have only exacerbated on that front.
Barcelona witnessed the infamous 'Barcagate' scandal, a fallout within the board of directors that was followed by the resignation of six members including that of the vice president.
There was a public altercation between Barcelona's captain Lionel Messi and the sporting director of the club, Eric Abidal. Another Barcelona news that made negative headlines was the financial bailout in the form of Arthur - Miralem Pjanic swap deal that was purportedly sought by the club to settle their books.
The emergence of La Masia graduates Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati along with the omnipresent brilliance of talismanic captain Lionel Messi has remained a source of respite for the Barcelona faithful amidst the gloom of the tumultuous 2019-20 season.
While Messi is always expected to perform at his highest level, Puig and Fati have impressed for Barcelona in the limited opportunities they received this season.
Owing to injuries to the likes of Messi, Luis Suarez, and Ousmane Dembele in the era of Ernesto Valverde, the 16-year-old Fati became the second-youngest player to debut for the club in a 5-2 home win over Real Betis. Since then, Fati has taken the football fraternity by storm.
Barring his four-minute-long stint that culminated in a red card against Espanyol, Fati has bedazzled almost every time he has been provided an opportunity to showcase his talents. The youngster has made ten starts during his 23 La Liga appearances this season, netting six goals while assisting one.
Along with being Barcelona's youngest ever goal-scorer, Fati is also the youngest player to score in the UEFA Champions League.
Graham Hunter, a Spanish football expert, was full of praise for the Guinea-Bissau-born left-winger on the Football Show.
“Ansu Fati has that mentality in him. He's the youngest player to score for Barcelona in the league, the youngest player in Champions League history to score a goal - and that was at the San Siro against Inter Milan."
“He's deeply exciting. How he matures and what his attitude to sudden wealth and profile is will determine whether he becomes an absolute stock superstar of European football in the next eight to 10 years. But the repertoire, the mentality is there and, this is absolutely vital; Lionel Messi adores him, thinks very highly of him,” Graham Hunter continued.
The admiration that Messi has for Fati isn't only visible on the pitch but the diminutive Argentinian has also been vocal about it. He wishes to facilitate Fati's growth as Ronaldinho facilitated him in the days of Frank Rijkaard.
“I like him, and I'll try to help him. He is a fantastic player and has what it takes to succeed. But if I look through my eyes, I would like him to have a gradual participation, as it happened to me when I started,” said Messi about Fati.
An iconic striker and Real Madrid legend, Raúl González, also had high words of praise for Ansu Fati.
“There are youngsters who appear out of nowhere and have something different about them. You have to be patient, relaxed, and enjoy them.” Raúl said according to Sport English.
Throughout the season, Fati has tormented defenders on the left flank with his speed and trickery, providing Barcelona with much-needed width and injection of pace. Moreover, Fati has also displayed his impressive temperament despite his young age.
The clarity of mind and the composure he shows in jam-packed regions of the pitch, and especially while shooting, belies his age. The sizzling opener that he scored against Leganes stands a prime testament to Fati's clarity and composure.
While many star names in the recent past, have had cold feet playing the Barcelona way at Camp Nou, the 17-year-old Fati was undaunted by the pressure of expectations.
Riqui Puig is the other Barcelona youngster who has come across as dauntless, and has grabbed his chances with both hands. Catalan born and bred, Puig, like Fati, is another La Masia graduate whose playing style is instilled with the Barcelona DNA.
Extremely comfortable with the ball at his feet, capable of finding the right pass and being seemingly immune to pressure, Puig oozes with energy and revitalises the game when he's on the field. Like all youngsters, he still has a lot to learn and prove, but it wouldn't be wrong to say that the midfielder possesses traits that are Iniesta-esque.
Puig, who made his La Liga debut last season against Huesca in a goalless draw, has featured 11 times in all competitions for Barcelona this season. He has played 21 times for Barcelona B, tallying two goals and three assists.
However, like Andres Iniesta, who was way more than his numbers, Puig, too,must be viewed through a similar lens. The impact he has had on games after coming on speaks louder than his numbers.
Iniesta's partner-in-crime and another Barcelona legend Xavi Hernández, was also full of appreciation for Puig.
“The truth is that he is a boy who breathes talent. He has self-confidence, personality, does not hide, and asks for the ball,” said the 2010 FIFA World Cup winner after Barcelona's pre-season game against AC Milan.
The then AC Milan manager and legend, Gennaro Gattuso, also wasn't shy of praise for Puig. “Riqui is spectacular. Even though they (Barcelona) have players that look like kids, the way they handle the ball amazes me. It's the beauty of football. It's like poetry,” Gattuso said during a post-match conference.
Barcelona's biggest criticism under Quique Setien has been that despite having the majority of ball-possession, the team is unable to make any inroads through opposition's defences, and that the team is often found lacking in intensity and energy.
But with both Puig and Fati on the field, FC Barcelona can overcome the issues that have plagued them this season. When the duo play, it is perceptible that they play for the badge. Brimming with self-confidence, they carry with them a vitality that Barcelona have sorely missed in recent times.
The impact Puig and Fati made was prominent in Barcelona's gutsy 1-0 home win against Athletic Bilbao. Setien acknowledged this fact in his post-match conference and said, “Riqui and Ansu coming on gave us dynamism.”
Yet, Puig and Fati haven't featured as much as they should have. This has baffled many Barcelona fans and experts alike who have questioned Setien's team selection and his substitution tactics, and perhaps rightly so.