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Clement Lenglet's litmus test - Can the Frenchman become the future of the Blaugrana defence?

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Barcelona won their last Champions League trophy 3 years ago
ANALYST
Modified 23 Sep 2018, 13:08 IST
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From as far back as anyone can remember, FC Barcelona have been an integral part of the UEFA Champions League, and their presence has been anything but negligible.

Of the several exhilarating performances that have defined the Catalan club in the modern era, a defensive masterclass is not the first thought that comes to mind. To find the most memorable of these rare moments, one must rewind to a Champions League clash against Lokomotiv Moscow in 2001. With Barcelona's keeper beaten and the goal wide open, a boy with fuzzy hair, all of 23 years of age, was on hand to deflect the shot with the club's crest.

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"The Wall" - the peerless Carles Puyol

Nobody expects Barcelona's latest French defender Clement Lenglet to emulate the achievements of the legendary Carles Puyol. Expectations, however, are still sky high among followers of the club.

FC Barcelona is not the club it was at the beginning of the decade. Gone are the Guardiola days where Sergio Busquets and Pedro - relative unknowns from Barcelona's extensive and talented reserves - were made regular starters in one of the best clubs in Europe. The Barcelona of today, however, is an interesting evolution for some Cules, and an abomination to most others. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Nevertheless, this transformation has had rather serious implications for the club's younger players, aspiring to make their mark on the first team. The average Barca fan does not need the statistics to know that barely any of the club's younger players have been trusted with carrying the team's baton.

Over the past four years, Sergi Roberto, Samuel Umtiti, Ter Stegen and Ousmane Dembele have been the only such players to cement a place in the team's starting eleven. And with the exception of Roberto, the other three have been bought for huge sums.

Holding down a regular place in a Barcelona team brimming with exceptional talent and experience requires one of two things: a few exceptional match-winning performances in important matches, or a sustained period of stability and consistency. For Clement Lenglet, the latter is a near impossibility at the moment, given the severe lack of first-team opportunities at the club.

After a stunning defeat to AS Roma in last season's Champions League, Valverde was roundly criticised for his inability to understand how and when to rotate his players. While the situation has improved (albeit slightly), Lenglet finds himself benched in place of compatriot Samuel Umtiti, and for good reason.

The World Cup winner was the Blaugrana's most reliable defender for most of the previous campaign.

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FC Barcelona v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga
Samuel Umtiti - Barcelona's most Puyol-esque defender

With Umtiti already doing his best to fit into the gigantic boots of Puyol, a more conceivable explanation for Lenglet's signing and his perceived importance to the squad is that he has been earmarked as the successor of another of the Catalan club's defensive mainstays: Gerard Pique.

While success in Barcelona's defensive lineup is not a given for even the best of centre-backs, an impressive showing will see Lenglet holding the fort at the Camp Nou alongside Umtiti in the years to come.

Barcelona's transfer window has been surprisingly shrewd this season (thank you, Eric Abidal), and Arthur Melo and Clement Lenglet have been widely touted as Barcelona's best signings in quite some time.

The former Sevilla centre-back is known for his technical proficiency and positional awareness; traits that Pique possesses as well. The experienced Catalan is 31 and has formed a stable partnership with Umtiti, meaning that Lenglet will find himself watching a large chunk of this season from the bench, given the club's current rotation policy.

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FC Barcelona v Boca Juniors - Joan Gamper Trophy
Clement Lenglet - Pique's natural heir

Lenglet, therefore, must make the most of every single whiff that comes his way. With Umtiti suspended for the game against Tottenham, Valverde must choose between Lenglet and Vermaelen to partner Pique in defence.

The possibility of Lenglet not playing any part in the match is very real, given the manager's propensity for fielding experienced players. The Frenchman, however, may not find a better opportunity than a Champions League away game at the home of football to prove his mettle.

Fans of Barcelona can be relatively patient with fresh faces, but an important away game against a formidable Tottenham side complicates the equation. Yerry Mina did not win any favours with Cules last season, more due to his style of play than his performances.

Lenglet is definitely an improvement over the Colombian as far as Cruyffian football is concerned, but individual errors in a crunch match such as this can potentially destroy his Barcelona career, particularly in today's rough and tumble footballing world.

On the other hand, if Lenglet does rise to the occasion and put in an impressive performance at Wembley, it is quite certain that Cules will scream for further rotation of their backline. Dele Alli, Eriksen and Harry Kane may not be in the best of form but are known to take no prisoners when at their best, and keeping them at bay will certainly win Lenglet more than just a few hearts.

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With Pique by his side and the peerless Ter Stegen behind him, the Frenchman could be handed the perfect opportunity to prove his mettle.

Only one question remains: will he step up?

Published 23 Sep 2018, 13:08 IST
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