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Rafinha: Barcelona through and through but can't get a game

Late last month, with Lionel Messi out injured and a vital Champions League tie with Inter Milan upcoming, the focus around Barcelona was on who would replace the Argentine genius on the right of their three-pronged attack.

Ousmane Dembele, the troubled, unpredictable, but sometimes brilliant Frenchman signed for over €100m from Borussia Dortmund was the obvious choice. Then there was Malcom, the Brazilian winger brought in from Bordeaux who had not yet been given much of chance to show what he could do.

Everyone, it seemed, had overlooked Rafinha Alcântara. Everyone that was, except manager Ernesto Valverde.

Thrust into the team to raised eyebrows, Rafinha shone.

The son of Mazinho, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994, and younger brother of Spain and Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcântara, Rafinha has been at Barcelona since he was just 13. Over the eight seasons since he made his first-team debut, however, he has rarely been able to secure a consistent place in the side.

After taking a while to warm into the Inter match – not surprising given how few minutes he had played so far in the season – he started to drift into dangerous attacking positions and was duly rewarded with a goal after 31 minutes, expertly finishing a wonderful cross from Luis Suarez.

It was one of those twists of fate that football is so good at providing and felt like an enormous statement from a player who the Blaugrana had been trying to sell to Internazionale in the summer.

Rafinha spent the second half of last season on loan at the Milan club, performing well and expressing his desire to make the move permanent.

Presented with the option to buy the Brazilian for €35m last summer, however, the Nerazzurri refused, preferring instead to invest the cash into the services of Radja Nainggolan.

Rafinha

That Rafinha should come back to haunt them, then, felt somehow appropriate, simultaneously reminding both clubs of his value as a player. Perhaps, finally, he could now go on to nail down the place in the Barcelona starting XI that had evaded him for so long.

With Messi’s continued absence, Rafinha was handed more chances over the following two weeks, playing in the 5-1 thrashing of Real Madrid and the 3-2 victory over Rayo Vallecano.

He was, however, taken off before the hour mark in both games without making any tangible contribution.

For the Champions League return tie against Inter in the San Siro, positional rival Dembélé was preferred from the start and Malcom scored after emerging from the substitutes’ bench.

Then, in the game against Real Betis – another of the clubs with which Rafinha had been heavily linked in the summer – he was out of the squad entirely. Messi was back in the team in his usual slot to the right of Luis Suárez and Malcom was this time deployed on the left.

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In a matter of a few weeks, Rafinha’s career at Barcelona had been summed up.

In those eight years since he made his debut – one and a half of which he has spent out on loan – Rafinha has only made 82 appearances in the Barcelona shirt, at points looking like he might break into the first team before inevitably falling back down the pecking order.

Rather than a lack of quality, his struggles at the club are more down to the fact that he does not really fit into the Barcelona way.

Rafinha, it was hoped, would at some point be able to replace Xavi in the centre of midfield. But he was never the sort of metronomic passing midfielder that the club required to maintain their famous style.

He is instead a more athletic, energetic player, happier weaving his way up the pitch with the ball at his feet than working it forwards with passing combinations.

His older brother Thiago, who continues to cast a long shadow over his younger sibling, seemed more suited to that role alongside Sergio Busquets. But it was he who left for pastures new rather than Rafinha, following Pep Guardiola to Bayern Munich.

Thiago

Now Rafinha must surely take a step away from Barcelona if he is to make the most of a career that could still deliver a great deal.

At 25, he needs to be at a club that guarantees him playing time every week, where he can make the most of his attacking dynamism, dribbling ability and tireless work-rate and where he can consistently make a case for inclusion in the Brazil squad.

After his late call-up for the recent friendlies against Uruguay and Cameroon to replace an injured Casemiro, that latter issue will feel even more pressing.

In an interview with Barcelona sports daily Mundo Deportivo in October, he said, “If in January I am still not in [Valverde’s] plans, the best for me and the club will be for me to leave… I want to play football. It doesn’t matter how or where. If I’m fit, I will be prepared for whatever may come my way.”

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He may need to take a step down – and moving away from Barcelona it is almost impossible not to – but he could be well served by a move to a team with a more counter-attacking style, perhaps in Italy (Roma has been mooted) or even the Premier League.

Mauro Icardi, with whom Rafinha played in the Barcelona youth teams before linking up again at Inter Milan last season, can be used as an example. He realised at a young age that his game did not suit the way Barca play and moved to Serie A, where he has become one of the world’s most prolific strikers.

Rafinha has to make a similarly difficult choice. If he stays where he is, he will only stagnate.

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