Barcelona youngster Riqui Puig's debut hints at his very bright first-team future
LOS ANGELES — Supporters at the Rose Bowl on Saturday would be disappointed to not have been able to watch Lionel Messi, still on his post-World Cup break, as Barcelona took on Tottenham in the International Champions Cup, eventually winning via penalties after a 2-2 draw in normal time.
However, in years to come, they may be able to boast about an “I was there” moment.
Messi famously made his non-competitive debut for Barca against Porto in a friendly in 2003 at 16 years old. Fifteen years later, 18-year-old Riqui Puig was ticking off the same achievement in Los Angeles this weekend.
Puig has enjoyed a whirlwind 2018 so far. At the turn of the year, he was barely known outside of La Masia, the club’s academy. The baby-faced midfielder’s focus was solely on the Under-19 team, but everything was about to change.
In February, he made his debut for the Barca B in the second tier of Spanish football; in April he trained with the first team for the first time; and, later that same month, he helped the U19s dominate Chelsea as Barca won the UEFA Youth League with a resounding 3-0 victory.
Puig’s preseason has been spent with Ernesto Valverde’s first team in the United States. The Barca coach is a big fan. Of the numerous B-team players that have travelled to the U.S., he’s the one that’s regularly been involved in the first-team rondos during training. And he’s the one that Valverde turned to when Andre Gomes got injured in the first half against Spurs.
Of course, there have been elements of fortune in Puig’s rise. Gomes’ injury, being the first. Injuries to Carles Alena and Oriol Busquets, two other young midfielders perhaps ahead of him in the pecking order, have also speeded up his progress.
But he’s taking advantage of everything that falls his way.
Against Tottenham, as he became the first Barca player since Andres Iniesta to wear the club’s No. 8 shirt, he looked composed and confident. At one point in the second half, he scooped the ball over Christian Eriksen’s head as he carried it forward to coos and woos from the near 70,000 person crowd.
Watching from the stands, on appearances and stature alone, he looked like a kid in a men’s game — even though many of the other players are still in the early years of their career, too. That didn’t transfer into his performance, mind.
So comfortable on the ball, he looks like the prototype midfielder you would expect Barca to churn out. Speaking after the game, he said the player he’s always styled his game on is Xavi. You can tell. He also said the nerves kicked in when he realised he was coming on. You couldn’t tell. Aside from the ease with which he played the game, he also stepped forward to take, and score, a penalty in the shootout.
Regular first-team football is probably out of his reach this season — his development will continue with the B-team — but he will get more chances in this summer’s ICC. With Gomes and Denis Suarez heading back to Barcelona with injuries and the club’s World Cup participants not on the trip to the United States, he could even start this week’s games against Roma and AC Milan.
Since he joined the club in 2013, the Catalan-native’s games have been followed religiously by his family, all Barcelona supporters. He still drives to B-team games with his mum in tow, and they were all inside the Rose Bowl on Saturday to witness his Barca bow.
It’s already an “I was there” moment for them. The question now is whether it will also be remembered by the others that were present to witness Puig’s first steps with the first team.