When reports emerged last week that both Lionel Messi and Samuel Umtiti had returned to training following injury issues, it is fair to say that most Barcelona fans were more excited about Messi’s return from his more short-term thigh muscle problem.
Nobody is really expecting Umtiti to start games soon. After winning the World Cup with France last summer, the centre-half has barely featured this season due a complicated left knee injury. When he next pulls on a blaugrana jersey remains an open question.
After an attempted return in November, Umtiti reportedly twice rejected advice from Barca’s medical team to have an operation on the cartilage-related problem. Instead he decided himself to travel to Qatar’s Aspetar medical facility for a ‘conservative’ course of treatment, wanting to avoid the long and difficult recovery period suffered when he underwent an operation on the same knee when he was just 17.
Samuel Umtiti to @OLTV_officiel “I will do everything possible to be ready for the Champions League game against Lyon at the Groupama Stadium. I’m really looking forward to re-encountering the Lyon fans.” #UCL pic.twitter.com/9QRh7aX9xB
— FC Barcelona Fl (@FCBarcelonaFl) February 7, 2019
Barca themselves announced that Umtiti would rejoin the squad when they returned from the winter break on Dec 30, but his progress towards full titness has remained slower than hoped.
In mid-January blaugrana coach Ernesto Valverde put the expected return at “two to three weeks” and the Champions League last 16 tie with Lyon was put forward for a return, with the player himself understandably keen to face his former club. But next Tuesday’s away leg in his old home city is now looking very unlikely, with the return game at the Camp Nou on March 13 the latest target.
Where this leaves Umtiti’s future long term is unknown. For almost two years after his €25 million arrival in summer 2016 the Cameroon born defender barely put a foot wrong, effortlessly replacing Javier Mascherano in the line-up. He was one of the Barca’s most popular signings through recent years, and one of the few real quality additions to the first choice XI.
Then in March 2018 he annoyed many at the club by suggesting Manchester United might pay his [then] €60m release clause and triple his [then] €3 million a year net wages. That brouhaha ended with a new much-improved deal agreed a few weeks later which runs until June 2023. But the affair left a sour taste.
Umtiti news will reasonably take a back seat today, but it is a real shame that he will miss so much time this season, surgery or not. Truly at the top of his game coming off a World Cup win before this whole mess. Luckily, Lenglet has been a godsend and Pique has been great.
— The Barcelona Podcast (@TheBarcelonaPod) February 6, 2019
Soon after that contract was signed came the first issues with his left knee, and it has been claimed that even during the World Cup it was not at 100%. Barca have been pretty patient so far in waiting for his return, with the issue clearly a sensitive one, but his long term future is now very much up in the air.
Meanwhile summer 2018 signing Clement Lenglet has firmly established himself as Gerard Pique’s partner in the middle of the Barca defence, with Jeison Murillo signed on loan from Valencia in January as [not being used] cover. The winter window also saw the Camp Nou hierarchy accelerate the arrival of 19 year old Jean-Clair Todibo from Toulouse as a more long-term option in defence.
Meanwhile regular reports have claimed that Barca are also interested in at least one of Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt, Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen, Inter Milan’s Milan Skriniar and Getafe’s under-rated Djene Dakonam. The latest name thrown into the hat is Fenerbahce’s Martin Skrtel, with the ex-Liverpool defender reportedly turning down an initial approach from the Camp Nou outfit late last year, but a deal possible for the summer.
Ideally, Ferland Mendy, Jovic or Maxi Gomez and De Ligt would cap a summer window to near perfection by Barcelona. I really hope these Rodrigo (Valencia) rumours aren’t legit, he’d cost €120m, not even worth half that.
— Rafael Hernández (@RafaelH117) February 9, 2019
Where Umtiti might end up has also been filling pages and airtime in the local media. Rumours of Manchester United reigniting their previous interest have returned recently, while he himself was in London to watch Arsenal v Chelsea in mid-January along with the brother of Gunners’ striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Manchester City and Liverpool were also among his reported suitors last year.
Still just 25, Umtiti’s current release clause is said to be €500 million, and Barca are sure to look to move on some of their higher earners next summer amid another squad reshuffle. Given everything that has happened recently his real price would realistically be a lot lower now – probably even less than United were willing to pay just over 12 months ago.
The possibility has potentially opened up for a canny club to get one of the world’s best centre-backs at a knock-down fee. But before anything can happen Umtiti really needs to get back playing games, as soon as possible.