Europa League star Denis Suarez making case for Barcelona return
It has been a strangely quiet midweek for Barcelona supporters, long accustomed to their club competing in Champions League semifinals on an almost yearly basis. Yet fans do have one reason to pay attention in the coming days: Denis Suarez.
On Thursday, Villarreal will look to build upon the 1-0 lead they took from the first leg of their Europa League semifinal clash with Liverpool, and a huge part of their hopes of going through rest on the shoulders of one of their most brilliant creative talents. Suarez provided the assist for the winner at El Madrigal, and the 22-year-old is not only a key player for the Yellow Submarine in the present, he is also likely to be afforded a chance to show off his talents at the Camp Nou next season, with the youngster's name at the top of the list of incoming Barca reinforcements.
When Suarez joined Villarreal from Barcelona last summer it was on a permanent contract, but a permanent contract with a condition. The Blaugrana included a buy-back clause in the deal that could be activated either in the summer of 2016 for €3m or the summer of 2017 for €6m.
All indications suggest that option will be taken up sooner rather in later. In March, Barca technical secretary Robert Fernandez called Suarez "an interesting player who we already thought about bringing in but couldn't," adding: "He'll possibly come in the summer market... it's quite probable. He's a player that could come in the summer, yes."
Should he finally join the Barcelona first-team it would bring to an end a five-year back-and-forth relationship with the club, who were interested in signing him when he was still a youth footballer before Manchester City succeeded in luring him to England instead.
When it became clear that senior football was unlikely at City, he opted for another move in the summer of 2013, Barcelona giving him the chance to play with their B team in the Spanish second division. The midfielder made light work of that league, and with Barca unable to give him the regular top flight football he needed to improve, he was once again moved on in 2014, this time to Sevilla on loan.
In one season at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, the Galician showed enough flashes of brilliance to suggest he could be a useful player at the highest level, but there was also a concerning downturn in his performance levels post-January, leading to him being dropped in key fixtures like the Europa League final. Bringing him to the Camp Nou last summer would probably have been a step too far too soon, and with the Catalan club still under a player-registration ban from FIFA, forcing him to miss out on competitive football for the first half of the season would have been asking for trouble on Barca's behalf.
Instead, he has spent a year at a highly competitive club that has fought well on two fronts, and he will come back to Catalonia a far better footballer for it. This year there has seen little sign of that post-Christmas dip; four of the midfielder's six European assists coming in the knockout stage of the Europa League.
Working with Marcelino has evidently improved his physical conditioning and concentration, the Asturian coach demanding a huge amount from his players when they are out of possession, so in place of the potential they sold, Barcelona will be buying back something closer to the total package.
His versatility will certainly be an asset for Luis Enrique. At Villarreal, Suarez has played from a starting position on the flank, either coming inside to create numerical superiority or helping to stretch play depending on the situation. His composure and excellent end product in the final third was clear for all to see against Liverpool, when he capped off a brilliantly orchestrated counter-attack with a quality first touch then ice-cold square pass in the box to assist Adrian.
Given how much Luis Enrique's Barcelona like to play on the break, it isn't difficult to imagine the player reproducing that kind of action as a replacement for one of the Blaugrana's front three when they are given some much needed rest.
Suarez will also expect to play a part in the middle of the pitch, in the interior attacking central midfield position that Barcelona signed him for in the first place. It was there that he played a large proportion of his games for Barca B, and while there will be stiff competition at the Camp Nou due to the high number of central midfielders already on the books, his unique qualities should give him a chance to play fairly regularly.
His time in Barcelona's B team means he has a head start on Arda Turan in his understanding of the club's positional play, something the Turkey international has made little progress with. Meanwhile, his comfort at mixing his attacking positioning between central and wide areas should make him a useful option to replace Ivan Rakitic on occasion -- the Croatian producing similar movements on the right side of the pitch while linking up with Lionel Messi and Dani Alves.
Above all, what Barcelona will be getting is a player that is brave on the ball, comfortable receiving it in congested areas, then smart enough to do something useful with it afterwards. Whether through a drop of the shoulder and a change of pace, or a delicate, precise pass, he is the kind of player that regularly breaks opposition lines then produces the all-important end product to make it count.
In short, he is exactly the kind of player Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez should enjoy playing with. Those three may well be watching him on Thursday night; Barcelona certainly will be.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.