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What does the future hold for Rafinha at Barcelona?

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The Brazilian is at a career crossroads

Rayo Vallecano v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

With just over a month remaining in the summer transfer window, there are still more questions than answers regarding Barcelona’s final squad list for the upcoming 2019-2020 campaign.

The ongoing Neymar transfer saga has dominated the headlines over the past couple of weeks, but there are multiple other looming decisions that Barca President Josep Bartomeu and the board must soon address. Will the club finally acquire a backup left-back? Will a veteran backup centre-back join the club now that Thomas Vermaelen and Jeison Murillo have departed? Is Luis Suarez going to have a true backup striker?

The main focus for Bartomeu has evidently shifted towards targeting depth concerns because they addressed much of their departure transfer business early in the window; the club has sold or released 12 different players so far this year. But there is one player whose future is still uncertain: 26-year-old Rafinha Alcantara.

Atletico Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Since moving on from Barcelona B, the Brazilian’s career with the first-team has been much of an underwhelming disappointment to say the least. Initially, scouts did not see Rafinha as a player that would follow in the footsteps of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta to be that next generational midfield talent. Instead, the long-term projection was for him to become a reliable rotational player that could fit in a variety of different tactical systems. He has to an extent justified the latter but as it pertains to growing into a reliable asset to the team, this is far from what one would describe Rafinha in his short career thus far.

In his last six combined club seasons, Rafinha featured in a mere 134 total games -- an average of 22.3 games per season. The low participation in games over the years is not because of his talent but, of course, due to the nagging knee injuries that have been detrimental to his career. In just over the past four seasons, he has suffered three major knee injuries: torn right ACL in 2015, right meniscus injury in 2017 and a torn left ACL in 2018.

It seemed as if whenever Rafinha gained the trust of the manager to feature in fixtures on a consistent basis, an injury would come along and ruin all of the momentum that he had built up. Just last season, he was building on his best campaign yet that included a Champions League goal against Inter Milan and a start against Real Madrid, but the ACL tear suffered during the away league fixture to Atletico Madrid ended his season. With a promising talent like Rafinha, it is unfortunate that he has spent more time rehabbing than on the pitch over the last couple of years.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

For a career that has been marked by injuries and constant letdowns, it seems as if his Barcelona career may be soon be coming to an end; the question at this point is now only a matter of when.

While Rafinha has fully recovered from the ACL injury, he returns to preseason training camp looking up at pecking order in the midfield. Barcelona currently have nine different players that can play in the midfield, including Rafinha. The addition of Frenkie de Jong and the recent rise of Carles Alena have crowded Barca’s midfield even more so than it was when Rafinha last played in a game for Barca. The Brazilian might not even be able to feature as a winger -- a position that he sparingly played last season -- considering that the attacking unit is just as crammed with immense talents up front.

At this point in his career, it is best for both Rafinha and Barca to begin looking at other options. Playing time with the first team with the stacked roster at hand will be far from a guarantee for the Brazilian. He might be able to feature in a couple of early Copa del Rey games and late season league games but considering that he is still just 26, Rafinha should begin looking elsewhere for a club that will provide guaranteed minutes. A third career loan move for Rafinha might not be best for all parties involved, so it is likely that a permanent transfer move is on the horizon.

Now the complicated aspect about transfers -- even in today’s ever so inflated market -- is that while teams are willing to go on record spending frenzies, this is not the case for every club in Europe’s top five leagues. With preseason well underway, many teams are already looking ahead to the upcoming season while others have their eye on bargain transfer deals. This begs the question for Barca’s board: is there even a market out there for Rafinha?

There is no denying that Rafinha is a talented and versatile midfielder. He can play multiple positions on the pitch and is a workhorse player from both an attacking and base midfield perspective. Whether it has been in La Liga or Serie A, Rafinha is capable of adapting to different roles and play styles in the midfield. Since he is not a talent that is primarily reliant on speed, the 26-year-old still has the ability to operate at the level that he played before even after suffering three devastating knee injuries. But the issue in completing a transfer for the 26-year-old centers on both availability and external factors off the pitch.

Rafinha of Fc Barcelona looks on before Uefa Champions... Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

The main talking point in a potential Rafinha transfer has been his contract. The five-year deal that the Brazilian signed in 2015 expires next year, which currently makes him the only player on the roster with just a year remaining on their contract. So, if Barca are able to find a new home for Rafinha, that club will have the Brazilian for a year with an option of potentially exploring a new deal if both parties wished to do so. But if the Brazilian stays, he will leave for free next summer -- a situation that the board do not want to face considering their current financial turmoil.

Any potential transfer will undoubtedly be a high risk, high reward move. As reported by Sport, Barcelona are seeking €15m for Rafinha. Would any team pay that much for an injury-prone talent playing on the final year of his contract? So far, Valencia have been the only team that have remotely shown any interest, but they refuse to pay what Barca are asking for.

Regardless of the team that they may negotiate with, Barcelona may not have leverage in any looming transfer. Any deal at Barca’s current offer will be viewed as a financial gamble for the receiving club because of Rafinha’s recent knee injury and price. Bartomeu will certainly like to receive as much possible for Rafinha but without a high demand in the player, he might have to lower the price -- a negotiation tactic that is all too familiar when dealing former Barcelona B players. (The last former Barcelona B player that the club were able to sell for at least €15m was Thiago Alcantara back in 2013 when he moved to Bayern Munich for €25m.)

Now while many clubs at this point in the summer transfer window undoubtedly have over €15m to spend (if needed), the issue for Bartomeu will revolve around finding the right club for Rafinha. As alluded to before, Valencia is one team that has shown intermediate interest in the Brazilian but they are not aggressively seeking a move; since they have over 10 players in the rotation that can play in the midfield for Marcelino’s 4-4-2 setup, he would be more of a luxury than a necessity. Sevilla is another club who would be an exceptional tactical fit but also highly unlikely now that they have spent well over €100m in this window. Other La Liga clubs such as Real Betis and Villarreal may show interest in the coming weeks but likely only the contingent that Barca lower their asking price.

So where could Rafinha end up moving to?

One team that has not been rumored to acquire the Brazilian but could show a slight of interest is Napoli. They are currently in a tightrope transfer battle with Atletico Madrid to get attacking midfielder James Rodriguez. In the case that they fail to acquire the Colombian, they may set their sights on a short-term solution for midfield depth like bringing in Rafinha.

FC Barcelona v FC Internazionale - UEFA Champions League Group B Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Another possible solution to this transfer dilemma is sending Rafinha to the Premier League but since their transfer window closes in early August, Bartomeu will have to act quickly to find a potential suitor.

For now, talks between Barca and other clubs are at a standstill due to the price, which is why there have not been many rumors surrounding his future. But if Bartomeu and the board decide to give in and lower the price at which they would sell him, then the floodgates would burst open with multiple teams inquiring for a deal.

After an underwhelming career so far at Barcelona, the Brazilian international is truly at a career crossroads. If he stays for another season, he will very likely spend a vast majority of his time on the bench -- a costly career move that will hinder his value even more. But if the Brazilian leaves, he will have the chance to prove his worth and spike his interest for when he becomes a free agent next summer.

At just 26, Rafinha certainly has plenty to prove for his club and international career.