Over the last few months, Barcelona have feverishly been trying to shave tens of millions of euros off their player salary bill. But if Robert Lewandowski can triumph in the hidden task that he now knows lies in front of him then the LaLiga club’s president, Joan Laporta, should immediately double the Polish striker’s wages.
For as long as Lewandowski and Karim Benzema stay fit, this season will be a thrilling, high-stakes, toe-to-toe battle between them to score enough goals to fire their respective teams to trophies.
Real Madrid’s man, Benzema, obviously has a significant advantage in that, over the last few seasons, he’s broken in Vinicius Junior as a brilliant and increasingly inspirational strike partner. Last season the French-Brazilian duo shared a total of 111 goals and assists for Los Blancos while conquering both Spain and Europe. Devastating.
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And while the ex-Bayern Munich man has already discovered that Pedri, Ansu Fati and Raphinha have innate understanding for his penalty box movement, the guy who holds the strongest profile as Lewandowski’s “Vinicius” is the occasionally brilliant but perpetually frustrating Ousmane Dembele. These two men, although both have history at Borussia Dortmund, are in a novice partnership.
Lewandowski isn’t famous for his patience in the face of second-class work, and while his tolerance isn’t destroyed yet, not by a long way, Saturday’s win at Sevilla gave evidence of the scale of the job in front of him. Barcelona, having looked like conceding two or three over the first 20 minutes, were 2-0 up courtesy of Raphinha and Lewandowski’s fifth goal in four matches.
Sevilla’s corner kick just before half-time flew to the back post, where Pedri volleyed it away in the knowledge that the home side only had two defenders back and Dembele was lurking halfway up the pitch. A visionary, improvised pass. Off went the Frenchman like a supercharged Road Runner. His marker, Gonzalo Montiel, had a petrified expression on his face.
Only two men properly pursued Dembele’s breakaway: Sevilla’s Joan Jordan and 35-year-old Lewandowski. As Jordan gradually began to give the impression that he was wading through wet cement, Lewandowski powered on, which meant that Barcelona suddenly had a brilliant two-on-one opportunity to kill off Julen Lopetegui’s side just before the break.
All that was required was for Dembele to show a killer mentality by playing the screamingly obvious pass to his 565-career-goals strike partner. Whether or not you’ve watched the incident, you’ll have guessed by now that Dembele did the self-indulgent, brainless thing: he ignored his teammate and compounded the madness by hoofing a narrow-angle shot over the bar.
What followed was comical — unless of course you were Lewandowski or Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez. Dembele momentarily held his hands to his head, didn’t apologize to his astonished teammate, and then trotted off back down the pitch as if, Hey-ho! No biggie!
The veteran Polish goal scorer just stayed stationary, lungs heaving, hands on knees, staring at the Frenchman, mouth agape with a stunned expression that said: What the hell did I just witness?! What the heck did I just sprint 70 meters for?
It’s precisely the type of thing you might have seen Vinicius doing to similarly grim expressions from Messrs. Benzema, Modric and Kroos a couple of years ago. Not now.
A hard-bitten all-in competitor like Lewandowski — a Treble winner with Bayern in his time — knows that any big battle isn’t won by one or two soldiers. It’s not only about him and Dembele making Barcelona great.
Nevertheless, the contest pitting him and Dembele against Benzema and Vinicius will go a very long way to determine whether Los Blancos hrs Los Blaugrana dominate Spain and compete successfully with the best in Europe.
Lewandowski has already explained to ESPN: “Karim is a fantastic player, who just had a brilliant Champions League season. I wouldn’t like to compare myself with him… He’s been in LaLiga for many years — it’ll be a new challenge for me.
“Benzema has proven how good he is, but it’s more important how we play at Barcelona, what we achieve, and it’s more important that we win every game.”
Let’s be clear. This isn’t a relationship breakdown under the spotlight — it’s not a crisis. But it is a problem for Barcelona that their main attacking partnership is both raw and 50% staffed by a winger who is not a great learner.
Three factors make the problem bigger.
Firstly, the Benzema-Vinicius partnership isn’t simply significantly longer established than Lewandowski-Dembele — it’s genuinely superb.
Secondly, while that brain-freeze from the French winger didn’t count for anything against Sevilla it could, literally, make a difference of many dozens of millions if it occurs again and is responsible for Barcelona not escaping their brutal Champions League group kicking off on Wednesday, which includes Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.
And finally, just for the record, not to claim it’s a brutal statistic, but: Lewandowski and Dembele have now played 306 competitive minutes together for Barcelona and they’ve only combined for one goal.
The emphasis, there, is on the winger. Lewandowski is the better player, the higher achiever, the prolific goal scorer, and he’s the guy Xavi has banked on to make the difference as Barcelona strives for the big trophies again. He’s made of “the right stuff” and Dembele, frankly, isn’t.
The Frenchman’s impact on Barcelona is high — he provided a total of 13 assists last season, and Xavi is an evangelical believer but… when Dembele was a free agent this summer, and Barca couldn’t afford to renew him, no other major team considered him a world-class player to be snapped up under bargain financial conditions.
If Vinicius had been contract-free over the last two months, it would have been the saga of the summer. Let me put some meat on the bones: The Brazilian, who only just turned 22 years old, last season in 52 matches in all competitions yielded Madrid 22 goals and 20 goal assists.
Lazy? Theoretically in his prime, aged 25, left Xavi raving with delight and determined to keep him because of stats which last season read: 32 matches, two goals, 13 assists.
There are reasons. Dembele occasionally erupts with touches of genius, yes. Reliability when it comes to doing the right thing, sometimes even the most basic thing, however, as Lewandowski discovered on Saturday night? Absolutely not.
This French enigma shares some traits with Vinicius — even one where he’s markedly stronger. Each is blessed not only with magnificent pace but with a daunting ability to dribble past rivals at high speed.
The two men ensure that if an opponent team is playing a high defensive line, they’ll be guaranteed a nervy night because Vinicius and Dembele can be played in by teammates and make any space between a goalkeeper and his defense line look naive, bordering on the delusional.
And if this were the card game Top Trumps, the strength where Dembele clearly outstrips Vinicius is that he’s genuinely two-footed.
Robert Lewandowski shows off some incredible skill to give Barcelona a 3-0 lead vs. Real Valladolid.
But not only is Vinicius better overall, despite his junior status, he’s a listener and a learner. His greatest tutor has not been Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, not Luka Modric — it’s Benzema.
Vinicius previously explained: “I’ve never played with a forward at Karim’s level. Since the beginning I’ve won him space to play and he does the same to me. We’ve been trying to perfect this relationship — so I can assist more, score more, and help the team more.
“I’ve always had confidence but when you start scoring and assisting more you become more important for the team and, of course, confidence increases.”
These are specifically the things Lewandowski, even more than Xavi, has to install in Dembele’s brain if they, as a duo, are to close the competitive gap on Madrid.
The one assist Barcelona’s No. 7 has provided his strike leader was a bit of a gem. Right-foot dribble, left-foot pass, Lewandowski sprinting onto the opening and conjuring a back-heeled goal for 3-0 and game-over against Valladolid at the Camp Nou last week.
What was just about as interesting was that while Lewandowski celebrated, mobbed by teammates, he was very clearly instructing Jules Kounde how and when he wanted the ball sent to him. Next week? Kounde assist, Lewandowski goal. Those who listen benefit. Will Dembele be one of them?
For the moment, King Robert of the Camp Nou is happy to make positive noises about his winger’s potential.
The Barcelona striker told ESPN: “Ousmane is a fantastic player with top-level qualities. I hope he stays fit for the whole season. If Dembele is focused on the game like he is now, he can score a lot of goals and provide many assists.
“On the pitch, I want to lead my teammates with my body language, to show them that no matter how many goals we have scored, we can always score more.
“Always think positive, always play forward. Always work hard. That’s what I want.”
For Dembele, school is in session. Every day needs to be a learning day. Or else Professor Lewandowski’s body language and vocabulary will change — radically. Watch this space.