Good things come to those who put their heads down and work hard.
That’s the story of Raphinha this season.
The flashy Brazilian arrived at the Camp Nou with the expectation that he would be the replacement for Ousmane Dembele.
In a surprising turn of events, the Frenchman renewed his contract at Barcelona, and Xavi had his main man back in the lineup.
The question was whether the two could coexist in the same starting eleven. With Dembele’s ability to play on the left wing, there were moments early on when it seemed to work, but ultimately, Raphinha was the odd man out when the manager concluded it was one or the other.
Raphinha is not used to being a side character.
At Leeds United, he was the star of the team, and of the Premier League writ large.
This is not a player who lacks confidence, or who backs away from pressure. Single-handedly, he kept Leeds United from relegation with big goals in critical moments. The previous season, he was the man that made Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United must watch entertainment.
Raphinha is an engine that never stops running. Bielsa’s system was perfect for him, and it transformed him into a top player that attracted Barca’s attention in the first place.
Coming to the Camp Nou was a dream come true, but systematically, it’s not surprising to see it take time to integrate himself.
Many people compare him to Ferran Torres, another winger of the Xavi era who was a big money addition.
The ceiling for Raphinha is much higher. With Dembele out, it’s not surprising to see the Brazilian step into the spotlight and feel comfortable taking on the big role that was left behind.
Raphinha wants all eyes on him. With the ball at his feet, he goes to work. He may not be as effective as Dembele at getting to the endline, but he does have a bag of tricks at his disposal to create danger.
Like Ferran, his movement off the ball is sublime.
For the first goal against Sevilla, there’s a reason why he was in the right place at the right time to receive the pass into the box from Andreas Christensen, to set up Franck Kessie, who finished things off with a killer assist to Jordi Alba.
Raphinha can maintain his width, as Xavi desires from his wingers.
But he’s creative enough to read the game, and get involved inside the box as well.
That’s how he scored his goal on the night. Not giving up on the play as Jordi Alba made his trademark pass across the box. The Brazilian popped up and got the easy tap in. That’s not the type of goal you’d expect his counterpart in Dembele to score.
And finally, that cheeky assist to Gavi, which was Raphinha’s best play of an already very productive game.
This is where Raphinha really shines. Sitting in pockets of space, squaring up defenders, and setting up his teammates.
Raphinha is supremely skilled.
But like all powerful tools, they get rusty without use.
The more Raphinha plays, the more effective he will be as he gathers steam.
He is an instinctual player like many of the great Brazilians before him. Barcelona fans are now in for a show, and opponents beware, because once those creative juices start flowing, the magic appears.
That’s great for the player, and even better for the team.
As Real Madrid’s woes continue, Barcelona is passing another critical test.
They won their games without Robert Lewandowski, and now they’re doing the same without Dembele.
One man down, next man up.
It’s an amazing thing to behold, and it’s how titles are won.
But like Xavi said, it’s not time to get comfortable.
If Barcelona are to stay on course to win La Liga, Raphinha needs to stay at this level.
In the Europa League, it will be two sleeping giants awakening for a colossal battle, and a chance to announce their return as a global superpower. Who takes it between Manchester United and Barcelona is anyone’s guess.
After that is yet another shot at silverware if Barca can knock out Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey. Sandwiched in between those two legs is a chance at a knockout blow in La Liga if the Catalans can take down their rivals at the Camp Nou in March.
Dembele will likely be out for most, if not all of these games.
The next few months, no one has more on the line to prove himself in Barcelona colors than Raphinha.
If he seizes the day, these will be the games that make him a player of the future. A true Barcelona player for posterity, as opposed to the many forgotten ones in recent years.
Raphinha’s stock is rising, and so is Barcelona’s.
Like Dembele at this point in the season a year ago, the Brazilian is quickly becoming the hottest player in La Liga, racking up goal scoring contributions.
The stars are aligning, but for a hard working player like Raphinha, this moment is well deserved.
Now that he’s seeing the field, he’ll go as far as his ambitions can take him.
And Barcelona is all the better for it.