From world champion to broken and error-prone – Samuel Umtiti’s miserable season
As recently as last season, the France defender was regarded as one of Ernesto Valverde’s most important players but he is now surplus to requirements
A few months ago, the idea of Barcelona selling Samuel Umtiti was preposterous.
The centre-back followed up a strong debut season with a sublime sophomore year, vital in the team’s La Liga and Copa del Rey double in 2018.
Umtiti penned a new contract in June and then helped France win the World Cup in Russia, cementing his place as one of the finest defenders on the planet.
The Barcelona star was on top of the world, but it proved a slippery place to stand.
Now, there are genuine questions over his future in Catalunya, with his fitness and form still a worry, while the club are working on a deal to sign Matthijs de Ligt from Ajax.
Umtiti’s compatriot Clement Lenglet has taken his place in the Barcelona side, forming a formidable partnership with Gerard Pique.
Lenglet was not even part of France’s squad which triumphed in Russia, but he has taken advantage of Umtiti’s injury problems to oust him from Ernesto Valverde’s best XI.
As much as he enjoyed Les Bleus’s World Cup win, it was the start of Umtiti’s suffering.
“I came from an extraordinary World Cup, where my childhood dream came true,” Umtiti told L’Equipe.
“I had some problems with my knee before and during the competition. I gritted my teeth and played the best I could.”
Umtiti’s drive and passion to become a world champion with France spilled over into irresponsibility.
“During the World Cup, I didn’t necessarily do what I needed to. Or rather, I did things I should have avoided,” admitted the defender.
Bits of loose cartilage in his knee were causing him pain. The same problem forced legendary Barcelona defender Carles Puyol to retire.
Some at the club thought Umtiti should take surgery but, in the end, the player and doctors agreed he would receive conservative treatment.
In December, it was decided Umtiti would go to Qatar to continue along that line, with Umtiti eventually playing just one match between the end of September and late February.
Upon his return in January, the treatment continued and he still wasn’t ready to play. His knee was responding slowly.
He would have loved to feature in Lyon against his former side, whom Barcelona paid €25 million (£21.6m/$28.3m) for in 2016, which now appears a relative pittance.
Although Valverde brought him on the trip, Umtiti had to watch on from the sidelines as Barcelona drew 0-0 in France.
Shaky performances against Sevilla and Rayo Vallecano worried Valverde and the coach did not use Umtiti in the second leg against Lyon either, again leaving him on the bench.
That is where he will be sitting on Tuesday when Manchester United come to Camp Nou, as Barcelona look to complete the job they started last week in the north of England and seal their passage to the Champions League semi-finals.
The visitors are one of two sides strongly linked with a move for Umtiti in the summer, with the other being Juventus.
Reports in Spanish media suggest Umtiti’s price would be €80m (£69.1m/$90.5m), which, should his knee problems disappear, would be a fair price for a top-class defender yet to hit his peak.
That is a big if, though, and the 25-year-old still needs to recover the ground he has lost performance-wise.
Umtiti was exposed during Barcelona’s topsy-turvy 4-4 draw with Villarreal on April 4, but showed some signs of progress in the 0-0 tie with bottom of the table Huesca at the weekend.
With Barcelona keen on pushing through a move for Ajax’s De Ligt, reuniting him with his friend and team-mate Frenkie de Jong, who has already agreed to join the Catalans in the summer, Umtiti is being pushed out of the picture.
Gerard Pique is 32 and will not last forever but the Catalan is in exceptional form and one of the few ‘untouchables’ in Valverde’s squad.
Lenglet has staked his claim to play alongside him and, should Barca sign De Ligt, the Dutchman would need to be guaranteed matches and is the logical third in line.
A defender of Umtiti’s calibre cannot be fourth choice and Jean-Clair Todibo staked his claim for that position with a composed display against Huesca.
Juventus, however, could do with a quality reinforcement in that position given Giorgio Chiellini is 34, Leonardo Bonucci 31 and the 37-year-old Andrea Barzagli retiring at the end of the season.
United, meanwhile, are being forced to take on Europe’s giants with players like Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in their backline. It’s no wonder they haven’t kept a clean sheet for nine games.
Umtiti was adored by Barcelona supporters but, with the team thriving without him, most would understand if he was sold.
“[Umtiti] has been out of action for a long time and the defensive line is playing at a really great level,” said Valverde, putting off the decision over the centre-back’s future.
“What Umtiti has to do is work hard and focus on getting back to his best. He’s keen to contribute.”
The defender has only ever been a good ambassador for Barcelona, helping Ousmane Dembele settle in after a rocky start, but circumstance has conspired against him.
Through little fault of his own, Umtiti may have to look for a new home.
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