Lionel Messi was still injured. So was Ousmane Dembele. Luis Suarez wasn’t yet fully fit. And of course Neymar’s return to FC Barcelona never materialized, since the club itself turned out to be far less enthusiastic about such a move than Messi was, and sort of just went through the motions.
With only one win from its first three La Liga games, Barca badly needed a win at home against storied Valencia on Saturday.
What was that again about the opportunities that lay within crises?
Seemingly out of nowhere, the 16-year-old Bissau-born forward Ansu Fati stole the show. He scored on a tidy finish and gave a wonderful assist to put Barca up by two goals in just seven minutes, showing his team the way in a resounding 5-2 win.
He’s now scored twice already in three league appearances – the first came in the 2-2 tie at Osasuna. For reference, it took Messi 13 games to score his second Barca goal. And Messi was older, too.
1 - Ansu Fati (16 years and 318 days) has become the youngest player to both score and assist in a LaLiga game in the 21st century. Diamond. pic.twitter.com/jk2zA8ddbZ— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 14, 2019
It’s laughably early for that kind of comparison, of course. But Fati’s meteoric emergence couldn’t have come at a better time. And he’s been so impressive that the question has now become where manager Ernesto Valverde will fit in all those forwards once Messi and Dembele return, keeping in mind that the club dropped 120 million euros on Antoine Griezmann this summer. It might perhaps even be a relief now that Neymar didn’t come back, since the 21-year-old Carles Perez has also acquitted himself well as a stopgap solution in the front line.
If Barca was in something resembling trouble, Valencia definitely was. Ahead of the game, chairman Peter Lim inexplicably fired manager Marcelino, author of a fourth-place finish and a Copa del Rey trophy last season. Per Marcelino, he was fired exactly because he won that cup, since Lim had apparently instructed him not to worry about the tournament. Either way, Albert Celades made his managerial debut in his first senior-team job with a disheveling loss, because Los Ches were utterly dominated. Barca had the chances to put up double-digits.
In just the second minute, Fati connected with Frenkie de Jong’s square ball for a tidy finish (via beIN Sports):
And five minutes later, Fati scampered up the left, beat his man and cut back for de Jong, who struck it home for his first goal as a Barca player:
They beat a familiar face in Jasper Cillessen, Barca’s backup goalkeeper until last season. After the intermission, the Dutchman parried a Griezmann shot off his near post, but it skipped free for Gerard Pique to bundle in the third goal. Then Suarez came on and scored twice, including immediately clipping a ball in off the near post:
For its part, all Valencia managed was Kevin Gameiro’s 21st-minute goal – initially disallowed for offside but rightly overturned by the Video Assistant Referee – and Maxi Gomez’s injury-time tap-in.
Fati’s influence waned in the second half, and he came off for Suarez after an hour. But he was the story. This was evidenced by the rousing ovation the Camp Nou gave him.
As a toddler, the Fati family left Guinea-Bissau for the south of Spain after a detour to Portugal. There, he was snapped up by Sevilla’s academy, only to move to Barca’s La Masia as a 9-year-old. Every major Spanish club coveted him, but Fati’s father, who had been a pro in Bissau, decided on Barca after the academy director visited his home.
In Catalonia, the younger Fati laid waste to the youth leagues, scoring dozens of goals every season, growing into the brightest striking prospect at the world’s foremost academy. But that designation is hardly a guarantee. Bojan Krkic, for instance, never panned out in the first team and has been reduced to playing with the Montreal Impact. And does anybody even remember Jean Marie Dongou? He plays for Lleida now, in Spain’s third division.
Unlike several other prodigies, including the American Ben Lederman, Fati was spared by the FIFA’s crackdown on Barca’s global recruitment for its youth academy. He was allowed to stay on, even though he missed two full seasons with a double leg-break.
Messi became something of a mentor to Fati, whose younger brothers had crossed paths with Messi’s oldest son, Thiago, in La Masia. Fati could have left on a free transfer over the summer, drawing interest from Manchester City and United. But Messi and his own brother helped to negotiate Fati’s deal to remain with Barca. He got a promotion to the B-team, where he was slated to spend the season.
And then Fati got something even more precious: an opportunity.
He was so young upon making his first-team debut against Sevilla that his parents reportedly had to sign a permission slip for him to appear in his first La Liga match. Now, he’s likely to get significant playing time in the first team this year, without ever representing the B-team.
Suddenly, Valverde will have a glut of forward options, a new strength growing out of a troubling situation.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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