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Chelsea’s timing of Dembele pursuit is perfect

June 16, 2022

WHEN he leaves the club at the expiration of his contract later this month, Ousmane Dembele will be remembered as one of Barcelona’s worst-ever signings.

But that shouldn’t deter potential suitors from pursuing the Frenchman this summer. And for one club in particular, he ticks all the boxes.

As they enter their first transfer window without the backing of Roman Abramovich’s billions since 2003, Chelsea and their new owners – a consortium led by American investor Todd Bohely – will be keen to show they can still compete for the best talent on the market at they seek to close the gap on Manchester City and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League.

That will almost certainly prove an expensive endeavour. A replacement for centre-back Antonio Rudiger, who has left Stamford Bridge for Real Madrid on a Bosman free, is set to cost upwards of £50m and Romelu Lukaku’s future at the point of attack is yet to be resolved.

A signing of Dembele’s calibre and name value for no outlay in terms of transfer fee would be a savvy move, then. And his form for the Catalan giants last term points towards the 25-year-old finally fulfilling the immense potential he showed as a teenager, first at Rennes and then under current Blues boss Thomas Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund.

It was Dembele’s form for Tuchel’s Black and Yellow’s that convinced Barcelona to fork out a club-record €105m (potentially rising to €145m) in the wake of Neymar’s shock exit for Paris Saint-Germain in 2017.

A rapid, creative and genuinely two-footed winger, he’d shone in his single season at Signal Iduna Park, with 10 goals and 22 assists in 50 total appearances for the German club.

But Dembele failed to live up to his billing in Barcelona. A hamstring injury in his first start for his new club kept him out for four months and, despite occasional flashes of his innate brilliance, he fell short of filling Neymar’s boots at the Camp Nou.

Until this season.

His goal output had remained modest, with just one strike in La Liga in 2021-22. But his return of 13 assists is just one shy of the combined total for his first four seasons in Catalonia.

His dynamism and confidence returned, too, as illustrated by the fact his average of 3.8 completed dribbles per 90 minutes is his best since 2017-18, with his dribble success rate better than at any previous time in his Barcelona career.

Early in his Camp Nou stay, Dembele’s professionalism was routinely questioned. The youngster was often late to training and was reportedly hooked on video games, playing into the early hours of the morning at the expense, it was suggested, of his preparedness for his day job.

But the former Rennes winger was last season picked out by manager Xavi for showing the kind of dedication to his craft that was all too rare within a faltering squad. In his post-match press conference after a defeat to Cadiz in April, a second successive loss, the Barca boss highlighted Dembele as an example of the commitment and work ethic his team lacked

“Look at him,” the legendary midfielder said, “he doesn’t even have a contract.”

And it wasn’t a one-off example. Xavi had remarked on Dembele’s professionalism earlier in the season, insisting that the 2018 World Cup winner would remain part of his plans for the remainder of the campaign, despite the club and the players’ representatives being unable to come to terms of a new contract.

“I’ve heard all sorts of things: that he hasn’t been professional and that he hasn’t looked after himself,” the manager said in February. “I can tell you now that it’s the complete opposite. He’s looking after himself, is professional, has been training well and is positive in and around the group.

“That’s why we – and I want to stress that it’s not just me but the club too – have decided that he’s able to play with the team. Had he been a bad professional, we may have decided on something else, but he’s been a true professional and a role model in terms of the way he’s carried himself within the group, and that’s ultimately what matters.”

It’s taken longer than expected for the teenager who broke through at Rennes and shone at Dortmund to consistently deliver on his potential, but Dembele, at 25, still conceivably has his best years ahead of him.

As he weighs up his options ahead of an expected departure from Barcelona this summer, the prospect of reuniting with Tuchel, the manager under whom he played his best football in Germany, will appeal.

And for Chelsea, a returned-to-form winger with World Cup pedigree and match-winning potential would be a welcome arrival as they begin their post-Abramovich reset.

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