When the teams were announced ahead of Barcelona against Eibar in La Liga on Sunday there was a special moment of applause for Marc Cucurella’s name.
Recognition for the Barça academy product, who was finally about to experience his debut at the stadium he had spent so many years dreaming about while making his way through the youth ranks.
The only catch? He was taking the bow in an Eibar shirt. Cucurella, once targeted by Chelsea and Tottenham, participated in the pre-season tour of North America with Barça’s first team last summer, and was hopeful of more senior action in the current campaign following the departure of Lucas Digne to Everton.
At the last minute he was informed Ernesto Valverde would be counting on fellow Barça B player Juan Miranda as Jordi Alba’s deputy however. Instead of moping, the Catalan instead seized an opportunity to move to the Basque Country on loan for a year, a reflection of his healthy desire for fresh challenges.
It proved to be a wise call. While Miranda has spent much of his year playing in the third division with Barça B, Cucurella has been trusted with a starting berth against La Liga giants like Real Madrid, Valencia and Real Betis, earning the kind of experience that are gold dust for a 20-year-old aspiring Barcelona player. On Sunday he added his boyhood club to that list of opponents.
Latest Football Stories
Bouncing around on the turf like a kid in the candy shop when Eibar came out to warm up, the Alella native wasn’t the only person excited about the return to Barcelona. So too were the local media and fans, thanks to his exhibition performance against the best possible opposition earlier this season.
On November 24th Cucurella produced a man of the match performance against Real Madrid at Ipurua, playing a huge part in ending Santiago Solari’s four match unbeaten run after taking over from Julen Lopetegui. “Against Real Madrid, because of my Barça history, I had an added incentive,” the player admitted afterwards. It showed.
His pinpoint crossing from the left flank was the key cause of all three of the Basque goals in the historic 3-0 victory that was Eibar’s first ever over Madrid in La Liga, and the way he pounced on the shakiness of Los Blancos right-back Alvaro Odriozola in particular showed a ruthless streak fit of an elite-level footballer.
Catalan newspaper Diari Ara described Cucurella as “ridiculing” the Madrid defender, who may have been grateful to be substituted with an injury after being embarrassed in the build-up to the on-loan Barça man’s assist for Eibar’s second.
Used on the left wing instead of his more familiar deeper position, it was the afternoon that Cucurella truly arrived on the big stage, and his starting run has continued unchallenged in the six league games since, culminating on Sunday at the Camp Nou.
Being picked to start against Barça could be seen as enough of an achievement in itself, but the loanee also did enough to suggest his run in José Luis Mendilibar’s side will continue. In the first half in particular he regularly won battles with Barcelona right-back Sergi Roberto, using his superior stature to beat him in the air, then bringing the ball down and surging forward to get a cross away or link up with team-mates when possible.
Particularly promising was a move just before the break, when Cucurella positioned his body perfectly to beat the Barça defender to a contested ball then show him a clean pair of heels, resulting in Roberto hauling him down from behind to concede a free kick on the edge of the area.
Less straightforward were his attempts to do battle with Gerard Pique, who had the smarts and physical superiority to put the energetic youngster back in his place whenever they met in individual duels.
That a 20-year-old cannot yet out-think or out-muscle one of the best central defenders in the world is hardly a revelation however, and when Cucurella was substituted in the 64th minute to applause from the Camp Nou he had done enough to show that there is plenty of potential ready to be exploited, albeit with room for improvement.
Before the Eibar game Ernesto Valverde was asked about the prospect of bringing the wide man back to Barcelona in the summer and replied that he is having a “great season” and left the door open. Valverde will have seen clear improvements on Sunday compared to the player he watched in the pre-season last year.
Eibar have the option to buy Cucurella this summer for a bargain price, but Barça have the final say on whether they will bring him back to Catalonia for the remaining two years of his contract, in which case his buyout clause would increase to €30m. The latter number reflects the true potential Barça thinks he has: it’s up to Cucurella to continue to improve and come back after a year in La Liga with his claim as Alba’s deputy undisputed.