Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele’s much-lauded performance in Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Chelsea saw the Frenchman take a step towards repaying the club’s huge outlay on him after a debut season in Spain which has been blighted by injury.
Lionel Messi was the name on everyone’s lips after capping another mesmeric Champions League display with two goals in the last-16 second leg win which set up a 4-1 aggregate victory, but Dembele was next in line for praise.
The 20-year-old struck his first goal in a Barca shirt since his 105 million euro move from Borussia Dortmund in August to put Barca 2-0 up, ruthlessly rifling home a pass from Messi.
He then pleasantly surprised supporters with a perfectly-timed tackle to foil Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso in the second half.
“He’s a very important player who covered a lot for us in defence. He demands a lot of himself in defence and denied them a clear goal,” Barca defender Jordi Alba told reporters.
“He needed to score an important goal like that to give him confidence and it will serve him very well in every sense.”
Dembele’s dream move to Barca got off to a nightmare start when he ruptured his hamstring on his first Liga start against Getafe in September, forcing him on to the sidelines for nearly four months.
He sustained another muscle problem on his return to action in January.
His misfortune with injuries did not give him any protection from the notoriously unforgiving Spanish media, and some reports suggested he was isolated from the rest of the squad and questioned whether he had the mentality to succeed at Barca.
The signing of Philippe Coutinho in January provided more competition for places in Barca’s already dazzling attack and eyebrows were raised when Dembele was an unused substitute away at Chelsea and a top-of-the-table clash with Atletico Madrid.
Yet the birth of Messi’s third son on Saturday afforded the France forward an opportunity to start in Barca’s last league outing against Malaga which he duly took with an impressive display in a 2-0 win, leading to another vote of confidence from coach Ernesto Valverde for the second leg against Chelsea.
“He did exactly what the game required of him,” Valverde said.
“Our plan was to play with an open winger who could get forward a lot and also work for the defence. Once Chelsea went behind, their wingers forced him to work very hard but he did very well.”
Chelsea coach Antonio Conte added: “We had spoken about him before because we followed him when he was at Dortmund. He has a fantastic future, Barca have made a great signing.”