Antoine's agony: Griezmann's place in Barca starting XI threatened by Braithwaite's rise & Suarez return
Given it was their first competitive fixture in three months, there were bound to be some surprises in Quique Setien’s Barcelona starting XI to face Mallorca on Saturday as La Liga kicked off its return from a pandemic-enforced hiatus last weekend.
With Clement Lenglet suspended, it had been suspected that Samuel Umtiti would partner Gerard Pique in the heart of defence only for the French World Cup winner to be pipped by Uruguayan youngster Ronald Araujo at the last minute.
Making a remarkable recovery from injury ahead of schedule, Luis Suarez had become available for the first time since Setien took over the reins in January but the coach overlooked him. Instead, it was decided that a front line consisting of surprise February capture Martin Braithwaite, Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi from left to right was the right approach.
Midfielder Arturo Vidal through a bullet header put the visitors 1-0 up a minute and five seconds in, and 35 minutes later Braithwaite passed his audition with flying colours. After getting into position for a flurry of chances, he netted his maiden Barça goal when assisted by Messi.
Though the trio worked well in tandem, Griezmann was undoubtedly the weak link and despite enjoying 94% passing accuracy, failed to muster a single shot during the Catalan club’s 4-0 romp.Also on rt.com Messi is Benjamin Button & Ronaldo is rusty: What we've learned so far from football's big post-coronavirus restart
Griezmann was hauled off for Suarez to enter proceedings around the hour mark, and the return of the Barca’s 9 and Braithwaite’s impressive showing should provide cause for concern for €120mn misfit Griezmann, who has struggled to find his feet in Catalonia since joining from Atletico Madrid last summer.
Forever the subject of transfer rumours linking him to a move away from the Camp Nou after just a single term, focus has switched towards whether the 29-year-old is at risk of losing his place in the first team now pushed back into a battle for the left wing.
Tight-lipped in his midday pre-match press conference, ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Leganes, Setien branded Griezmann “a tremendously important player for this team and this club”.
But elsewhere there were comments on the fact that now having more players at his disposal means there is a need for him to “divide the minutes”.
“Except for some very specific players that we all know from their hierarchy,” Setien added later, in a nod to the likes of Messi and Pique, “no one is a starter or substitute”.
“There are going to be rotations and I want everyone to participate with that spark and desire that they are showing,” he concluded, when probed specifically on Braithwaite and his improved chances of being a regular on the teamsheet.
Yet with Suarez now fit for the opening whistle and the Denmark international’s former club Leganes on the menu on Tuesday evening, will we finally get the chance to look at a new trident in Braithwaite-Suarez-Messi?
BSM, if you will. Or maybe MSM - such is the desire in the press to immediately acronymize Barça’s front line.
It goes without saying that were the Braithwaite-Suarez-Messi front three concoction to come to fruition and become a permanent change, and Griezmann was supplanted by a shoe-horn last-minute panic buy brought in when Ousmane Dembele suffered a hamstring knock, it would provide the ultimate source of embarrassment for the 2018 World Cup winner.
Relief may be taken from the fact that Braithwaite is ineligible for the Champions League when it presumably resumes in August, though this competition similarly pits Griezmann against close friend Dembele, as seen earlier in the campaign.
Anything less than a starring role in roaring domestic and continental trophy wins for Barca will put Griezmann’s future further in doubt. But perhaps he won’t be afforded the chance to prove his worth if things continue to progress in the current manner.