The amount of injuries and setbacks Thomas Vermaelen has encountered during his frustrating time at Barcelona would be enough to force any player into early retirement plans.
Remarkably, signing from Arsenal last summer, Vermaelen made only his third appearance for the famous red and blue during Sunday’s 1-0 victory at Athletic Bilbao. His authority, leadership and durability at the heart of any defensive back-line has never been in question, but the key for Luis Enrique is keeping the Belgian off of the injury table and very much on the pitch.
Arsenal fans will remember Vermaelen’s domineering presence alongside fairly average centre-back partners, almost single-handedly winning the Gunners points with a series of strong performances and chipping in with the odd important goal.
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Yes, Vermaelen’s rather shocking appearance on Sunday probably wouldn’t have happened had the ever-reliable Gerard Pique not been suspended, but Vermaelen certainly is no back-up defender, when fit and at his most brilliant best he is capable of slotting into any defensive partnership in Europe.
At still only 29-years-old, Vermaelen’s availability could prove pivotal in what is set to be another dramatic, enthralling three-horse title race, with the emergence of Atletico Madrid hardly just a flash in the pan.
The big Belgian made 110 appearances for Arsenal over five-year stay at the Emirates and was consistently a fans' favourite for his dedication to the cause.
Hunger for more success
No doubt, Vermaelen still has the desire and mental toughness to handle the big occasions and the hunger for more success with Barcelona is certainly without question. However, you can’t help but feel that this season could be the 29-year-old's last with the Catalans unless he is able to establish a run of several games in the first-team and more importantly keep himself injury-free.
Barcelona are engaged in four more different competitions this season, having already secured the Uefa Super Cup with a thrilling 5-4 victory over Sevilla. Vermaelen’s game time is very much dependent on maintaining his fitness levels. Barcelona have never doubted his ability and have publicly stated their desire to give the Belgian as much time as he needs to overcome his chronic injury woes.
It’s difficult to imagine Enrique continuing this trend considering he would not want to stand in the way of the emergence of youngsters. Marc Bartra, an ever-present under Enrique in last season’s match-day squads, will be pushing to cement his place alongside Pique. Javier Mascherano has proved time and again his versatility - no longer can he be considered a makeshift centre-half after a string of excellent displays last season.
Vermaelen has a battle on his hands to reinstate himself as one the most dominant central defenders in Europe. He must put to bed his injury problems and build on his strong performance against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.