Luis Enrique’s team selections have at times raised eyebrows. The Barcelona Coach went almost 30 games without naming the same XI for two fixtures in a row and, in that streak, made some questionable choices – think Jeremy Mathieu at left-back against Real Madrid.
The inclusion of Rafinha against Villarreal, when both Xavi Hernandez and Ivan Rakitic were among the substitutes, was unexpected but not as bizarre as the Mathieu decision. This time, the thinking is clear – the Yellow Submarine are lethal on the counter-attack and Rafinha offered more mobility than either of his more experienced colleagues.
And so it proved. The 21-year-old covered ground in defence and attack, scored the goal that levelled the game for the second time and never took a back step. He ended the evening with a bloody nose, 15 EuroFantasyLeague points and his reputation enhanced a great deal. Rafinha, on this showing, can be a crucial player for Barca for the rest of the season and beyond.
With Barca unable to add to their squad for another 12 months, he is one of the fringe players with time to establish himself in the side. We’re six months away from another round of questions over Xavi’s future while Andres Iniesta is into his early 30s. Rakitic has impressed but appeared to lose the faith of Enrique earlier in the season and may not have entirely won it back. There aren’t many more midfielders in the first team squad for Enrique to consider, only the purely defensive pair of Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano and youngster Sergi Roberto.
Having first played under Enrique with Barca B – briefly, in Enrique’s last season in charge – and re-united with the ex-Roma Coach at Celta Vigo, Rafinha should at least be well-attuned to what the 44-year-old demands. Indeed, Enrique blooded Rafinha in his first La Liga game in charge of Barca, a 3-0 win over Elche. Rafinha played the first-half before he was hooked in favour of Marc Bartra following Mascherano’s 43rd-minute red card and could have been forgiven for expecting a regular place in the side thereafter.
That’s not quite how it worked out as Rafinha was forced into a back seat by Xavi, Iniesta et al, appearing only once in September and October, a recurrent thigh injury also an issue. He received more minutes in the winter months only for the problem to flare up again in November but he has been injury free since. It may have been a case of Rafinha’s body getting used to the intensity of playing in the Barca first team and he certainly looked up to speed on Sunday.
Rafinha’s contribution against Villarreal could go down as a turning point in his career. He proved an able deputy for his more experienced colleagues, scored only his second goal of the season, executed the Coach’s plan to perfection and was only withdrawn after taking a whack in the face. He wanted to play on despite the blow – more performances of this calibre and he’ll get his wish.