Signed from PSV Eindhoven for a paltry fee of €3 million back in December 2010, Dutch international Ibrahim Afellay joined a Barcelona squad that had secured the past two La Liga titles, some three years after their last league trophy. Utilised mainly off the bench as an impact player on either side of the attack, Afellay was seen by the then-Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola as an important member of the squad, with the Catalan manager effusive in his praise of the former PSV captain’s talents.
Guardiola remarked that the Utrecht-born midfielder "rarely loses the ball, uses space well, can play on both wings, shoot with both feet and is very willing [to work for the team]". In essence, Afellay seemed like the perfect signing for FC Barcelona – and it wasn’t long before he started to make an impact with the club.
Starting on the right-hand side of attack, Afellay scored his first goal for the club in the Copa del Rey, rounding off the scoring with Barcelona’s third of the night (and Barça’s eighth of the tie) against Almeria with a composed finish from just inside the opposition penalty area. Admittedly, Afellay struggled to have the same impact in the remainder of the season, but the Dutchman kept his composure, continued to learn from his peers and his persistence eventually paid off.
After cameo appearances in the previous two Clasicos, Afellay was once again introduced to the fray in Barcelona’s UEFA Champions League semi-final first-leg against Real Madrid – and promptly turned the match in the Blaugrana’s favour.
Jose Mourinho’s side had already been reduced to ten men after Pepe’s controversial sending-off, and despite their resilience, were clearly tiring in front of their home crowd. Yet, as time winded down, it appeared as though they had enough left in the tank to close out a goalless draw. However, with less than fifteen minutes to play at the Santiago Bernabeu, Afellay seized the initiative and secured the adulation of the Culés across the world with a superb – and timely – assist. Taking the game to a weary Marcelo, Afellay created just enough space for a cross and fired the ball into the Madrid six-yard box, where Lionel Messi was on hand to bundle the ball into the back of the net.
With a one-goal lead over their rivals, Barcelona went on to secure their place in the 2011 UEFA Champions League final against Manchester United, where Afellay made a brief appearance in injury-time. He might not have contributed an awful lot in his first six months with the club, but thanks to his hard-working attitude and versatility, it was still a promising start nevertheless.
Unfortunately, Afellay suffered a serious knee injury in training towards the start of the 2011/12 season, and was sidelined for the majority of Barcelona’s underwhelming campaign. In his absence, Guardiola opted to promote the likes of Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello, each of whom provided the "direct" option that Pep was looking to add to his all-conquering team; but it wasn’t quite the same. Without Afellay, and perhaps more pertinently, without David Villa, Barcelona came unstuck in the latter stages of the season; as Tello’s and Cuenca’s inexperience came back to haunt the Blaugrana in difficult defeats against both Real Madrid and Chelsea.
As part of his recovery from that ACL injury, Afellay joined FC Schalke on loan last season – but once again, the Dutch international’s spell at the club was plagued by injuries with rumours of a confrontation with Schalke’s physiotherapists only serving to underline the frustration of the past couple of seasons for Afellay. Now back at Barcelona, ‘Ibi’ looks set to start pre-season with the club after speculation linking him with a move to Tottenham Hotspur never quite led to a concrete offer.
While Barcelona are reportedly still keen to offload the former PSV captain, it’s possible that the Blaugrana are delaying any decision on his future until they know the respective futures of Thiago Alcântara, David Villa and Gerard Deulofeu. Certainly, with Tito Vilanova pushing for a small squad, I can see the benefits of keeping a versatile, Dutch international winger on the books; and given his talents, Afellay at least deserves a pre-season run to prove his worth. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?