Champions League: How PSG’s Ousmane Dembele can hurt former club Barcelona

PSG meet Barcelona in the Champions League, with former player Ousmane Dembele eager to show what Barcelona is missing

Most of the attention in Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League quarter-final with Barcelona on Wednesday will be on Kylian Mbappe, but Ousmane Dembele is also set to have a big role to play for the French club against his former side. Mbappe, who is expected to be coming up against Barca in a Real Madrid shirt next season, has 39 goals for PSG in this campaign. Dembele has only one.

However, the player described by newspaper Le Parisien last week as a “tearaway” offers something different, even if Barcelona are all too aware of what the 26-year-old winger can do with a ball at his feet. The France star returned to his home country last August after six seasons in Catalonia, with PSG paying a reported 50 million euros ($54.3m) to sign him on a five-year deal.

That relatively paltry sum in the modern transfer market for a world-class player corresponded to the amount of his release clause at cash-strapped Barca. Moving to Paris allowed the Normandy native to team up with Luis Enrique, who he said had previously wanted to sign him when Dembele was breaking through at Rennes.

“PSG had been interested in me for a long time. The first contact was when I was at Dortmund, but at that time my objective was to play for Barcelona,” Dembele told sports daily L’Equipe earlier this season. He admitted leaving Barcelona had not been an easy decision after he flourished under the management of Xavi Hernandez towards the end of his time at the Camp Nou.

“These were my two best years, with a coach who showed confidence in me. But I wanted to sign for PSG. It was more to do with Paris changing my mind than it simply being about quitting Barcelona.” And so fate has dictated that he, like Luis Enrique, will get to come up against Barcelona in this season’s Champions League quarter-finals.

Dembele was in a Barcelona shirt the last time the clubs met, in the last 16 in 2021, when Mbappe scored a lethal hat-trick in the first leg in Catalonia. Their previous encounter was the notorious last-16 tie in 2017, when a Barca side coached by Luis Enrique overturned a 4-0 deficit in the first leg to win 6-1 in the return.

A humiliated PSG exacted revenge in August of that year by signing Neymar Junior from Barcelona, paying the 222 million euros needed to activate his release clause. Barcelona were blindsided and panicked, throwing huge money at replacements for their Brazilian superstar.

They swooped for Dembele, who at the age of 20 had just enjoyed a superb season in Germany at Borussia Dortmund. They agreed to pay 105 million euros plus add-ons for a player still far from the finished article.

That fee, and the even higher sum committed to signing Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool a few months later, heralded the start of Barcelona’s serious financial problems which culminated in Lionel Messi leaving the club in 2021, for PSG.

Dembele scored 40 goals in 185 appearances for Barcelona, a much better strike rate than he has managed at PSG, where his only goal in 34 games to date came against Monaco in November.

“If he were a better finisher he might have won the Ballon d’Or,” Julien Stephan, the current Rennes coach who worked with a teenage Dembele at the Brittany club, said last week.

Dembele may really need to weigh in with more goals next season once Mbappe has departed, but for now he has at least provided more assists than any other player in France this season, playing usually in a position on the right flank.

However, the lightning fast, fleet-footed dribbler has been deployed in a withdrawn central attacking role in key recent matches — the Champions League last-16 second leg away to Real Sociedad and the clash with fierce domestic rivals Marseille.

“I think we will see an even better version of Ousmane playing through the middle,” said Luis Enrique recently. “I am not worried about him not scoring enough goals. I am sure he will improve because we see him in training. What he creates is very positive for the team and he is a player who almost can’t be stopped.”

 

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