Marred by injuries, Dembele fails to meet expectations

MADRID (AP) — More than 17,000 fans were at the Camp Nou when Ousmane Dembele was officially introduced by Barcelona in 2017.

The expectations were high at the time. The then-20-year-old French forward had been touted as a possible replacement for Neymar, who had just left for Paris Saint-Germain in a record transfer.

Barcelona paid 105 million euros (then $125 million) to sign Dembele from Borussia Dortmund, with add-ons that could have reached 147 million euros ($175 million) and made him the second-highest transfer in soccer history at the time.

Two-and-a-half seasons later, though, Barcelona is still waiting for Dembele to meet all those expectations.

Dembele’s stint with Barcelona has been marked by his numerous injuries, not his goals. Wearing the No. 11 shirt that Neymar used to wear, Dembele has been injured nine different times since arriving, being sidelined for several months and missing more than 60 matches. In the nearly 50 matches Dembele did play, he scored 19 goals.

Dembele’s latest setback is a right-thigh hamstring tear that is likely to keep him out of action for the rest of the season. The injury came in training on Monday as he entered the final stages of his recovery from an injury that had already kept him sidelined since November.

He was almost certain to have a place in the starting lineup once he was back, as striker Luis Suárez is also out injured and is not expected to be fit again until later in the season. Young forward Carles Pérez, who also competed for a spot in the attack, signed with Roma in last month’s transfer window. His main competition would have come from Ansu Fati, who is only 17 years old.

“I was confident that Dembele was going to be very helpful for us,” Barcelona coach Quique Setién said Wednesday. “It was unfortunate. It's sad to see him like that. He is a great kid, I saw how he had been working hard.”

The 22-year-old Dembele had his first major injury shortly after he debuted with Barcelona. It was another hamstring injury, in the left leg, and it kept him out for four months.

Most of his injuries have been muscle problems, with a few ankle issues thrown in.

Dembele’s most recent injury will likely force Barcelona to try to sign another forward, though it will have to look for the player in the Spanish market as the international window ended last month.

The club’s only signing in attack was young Portuguese forward Francisco Trincão, but he will only join the squad after the end of the season.

“We will see how it goes,” Setién said. “But if we can’t bring anyone else, it will be fine. We will keep working the same way as we did before.”

Barcelona is also mired in off-the-field problems. Lionel Messi this week publicly hit back at sports director Eric Abidal for criticizing his efforts under former coach Ernesto Valverde. Messi used his Instagram account to say Abidal and other club directors should take responsibility for their recent decisions. Abidal met with club president Josep Bartomeu on Wednesday and was expected to remain on the job.

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