The result was not a foregone conclusion.
What turned into a dominant performance with 27 shots, 13 of which were on goal, could have gone much differently against an Almeria side that was content to sit low and frustrate Barcelona throughout.
Ousmane Dembele’s ability to break down three defenders and curl in a shot on his “weak foot” changed the dynamic of the game completely.
He was the difference maker. How many Barcelona players are capable of doing what he did there? None.
That’s why Xavi can’t quit him.
So long as the vintage Barca 4-3-3 remains, there is no one better suited for the role on the wing than the Frenchman.
That moment of brilliance, however, was sandwiched in between two big misses that his detractors, of which there are many, will gleefully use to overshadow his man of the match performance.
The first was a wide open diving header, and the second was a failure to pull the trigger on an open goal after dribbling the keeper.
Dembele deserves criticism for not doing better with these opportunities.
He is usually the most talented player on the field, and if he had finishing instincts, could be the best in the world.
I think what we are seeing this season, however, under a manager that truly trusts him and wants to see him succeed, is a willingness to step outside of his comfort zone.
On the one hand, we can justifiably sit here and malign Dembele for the chances missed.
But there’s a more important story.
Dembele looks more alive and motivated than ever. He’s being vulnerable and taking risks on the field in pursuit of becoming a more complete player.
Suddenly, we’re seeing him make runs inside the box, and getting himself into positions to score goals.
It’s not a coincidence that he recently scored a booming goal with his head, and could have done the same again on Saturday.
In the second leg against Inter Milan, he opened the scoring with a great near post run.
To celebrate, he gave a big hug to Xavi, to thank him for offering a second chance when the rest of the world was ready to give up on him.
Dembele needs to embrace the pressure that comes with the heightened expectations of being such a big talent.
Every game, all eyes are on him, and if he wants to put his haters to sleep, he’ll need to score more goals.
It’s been encouraging to see him embrace some of the qualities of Ferran Torres and Raphinha, his direct competitors for playing time.
Those smart runs off the ball, as Ferran does so well, will increase his chances of scoring more often. And by the way, it seems like Dembele looks like the best version of himself when Ferran plays on the opposite wing.
Raphinha’s confidence to take defenders on with flair, and heart to press hard to win the ball back defensively, is another quality we’re seeing in Dembele too.
Ultimately, Xavi has options, and the best will play.
Right now, that spot on the right wing is Dembele’s to lose.
But there’s much more on the line than playing time.
Barcelona needs to win games, and going into the World Cup break, they are right where they need to be to make a run to become La Liga champions.
For all the righteous indignation around the Champions League, Xavi and Barcelona have been stellar domestically, with the exception of the Clasico.
That’s because they are not dropping points against the bottom dwellers, and that’s what needs to continue.
Dembele was key to breaking open the game against a very defensive Almeria.
Like the Barcelona of old, however, we want to see the floodgates open.
That means more pace.
And ultimately more goals.
Dembele has a big role to play in that, and he knows it, and seems to want it.
Are we going to see a more ruthless Dembele going forward? Someone who doesn’t second guess himself, and just lets instinct take over?
If he continues down that path, he will no doubt develop a goal scoring dimension to his game.
He could just be a textbook late bloomer.
Xavi has wagered as much, and under the current formula, Barcelona needs Dembele to succeed if they are to succeed.
This will be a big year for the Frenchman.
The more important thing is that he’s staying healthy.
He’s a protagonist for his club, and may also be for his country as well.
The story is his to write, and the way it ends is in his hands.
The ending, after all, is what people remember.