Denis must show more than flashes to star in Barca's revamped midfield
Denis Suarez has hardly featured for Barcelona this season, but in just 18 minutes throughout the past week — spread across two games — he has played himself into contention to start Saturday’s game against Leganes at Camp Nou.
Barca coach Ernesto Valverde has played up the importance of beating Leganes. Three points would leave them needing just 12 more to win the Liga title for the third time in four years. Avoid defeat, and they will also match Real Sociedad’s long-standing record of going 38 games unbeaten. They will also remain on track to become the first-ever side to go an entire season unbeaten in Spain’s top flight.
Those are among the reasons why Valverde is unlikely to make wholesale changes, despite the temptation to rest players in the middle of a hectic run of games.
However, Denis deserves a chance. That’s been said before, mind. Since he rejoined the club from Villarreal in 2016, the midfielder has often impressed in cameos or Copa del Rey games, when he’s been one of the more senior players. But he has usually failed to back up those performances when given a proper first-team start.
Earlier this season, for example, he tailed off after making big contributions in wins against Getafe and Eibar. That will have to change, though, if he wants to make a career for himself at Barca — and he protests that he does, despite interest from other clubs.
Denis was forced into hibernation through the winter months. The last time he started a league game was on Dec. 10. The last time, before last Saturday’s draw against Sevilla, he featured at all in La Liga was on Jan. 14. He came on for one minute against Real Sociedad.
After resisting the temptation to ask to leave in January, following the arrival of Philippe Coutinho, he finally got a chance to impress Valverde in the Catalan Super Cup at the end of February. But after a bright half hour, he got injured. He’s returned with a spring in his step, though, the benefactor of a full international break with his club to focus on refinding his form and his place in the team.
Valverde liked what he saw and recalled him to the squad for the trip to Seville. He even brought him on for the final 13 minutes with Barca two goals down. Obviously, Lionel Messi, also a substitute, wrote the headlines that night, but Denis’ showing was one of the footnotes. It earned him five minutes against Roma in midweek, and again, despite the brevity of the appearance, he looked good.
The problem he has is that at 24, he’s no longer a kid. It’s time to take on more responsibility and find more consistency. Given the No. 6 shirt when he returned, the comparisons to Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez were easy and endless. Right now, though, they’re looking more hopeful on Barcelona’s part than anything.
Denis could find himself at a crossroads this summer. Not many players have the will displayed by Sergi Roberto — who has urged Denis to use him as an example — to stick around when they’re not playing regularly.
If Andre Gomes and Andres Iniesta leave, there could be an opening. Not that the competition for places is likely to get any easier. In Coutinho, Barca already have someone they expect to eventually take on a midfield role in front of Sergio Busquets. Then there’s the looming arrival of Arthur from Gremio and the anticipated promotion of Carles Alena from the B team in the summer.
Denis can make a headstart on Arthur and Alena, though. A good performance against Leganes, if selected, should lead to more chances, too. With the number of games they have coming up, a deep squad is needed. And if they wrap up the league with time to spare, there will be room for more rotations, too.
But a good 18 minutes every now and again will not be enough. Denis has been here before. Things need to be different this time.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.