Football

Ousmane Dembele has been ‘exemplary professional’

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Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez said Ousmane Dembele has been an « exemplary professional » since he took over after restoring the France forward to the side following a standoff over his contract renewal.

Dembele, 24, was jeered by Barca supporters earlier this month when he was an unused substitute in the win over Atletico Madrid and again when he came off the bench against Napoli last week.

Xavi then handed him his first start since Jan. 12 at Valencia on Sunday despite the uncertainty which surrounds his future at Camp Nou, with his deal up in the summer.

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« He looks happy, » Xavi said in a news conference ahead of Thursday’s Europa League tie against Napoli at the Diego Armando Maradona stadium.

« He is an exemplary professional. I have not had a single problem with him and I have heard all sorts. That he has not been professional, that he doesn’t take care of himself… he is the opposite. He trains well and he is positive around the group.

« As for the rest, let’s see. His deal is up at the end of the season and [what happens] depends on him and the club. All I can say is that he is a player I really like. »

Dembele has so far turned down all of Barca’s offers to renew, which led director of football Mateu Alemany to tell him to find a new club in January.

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He was linked with Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and several other English sides, but opted to stay at Barca despite the threat of being left out of the squad for the rest of the season — as he was for games against Athletic Bilbao and Alaves in January.

However, Xavi said Barca would be shooting themselves in the foot if they chose not to use him.

Dembele helped create two goals in Sunday’s win at Valencia and could play an important role in Italy on Thursday as Barca look to book their place in the round of 16 of the Europa League following a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou in the first leg.

« It would be a big disappointment to go out, » Xavi added. « It is not the Champions League, but it is a competition we are all excited about. We want to show we can compete in Europe. »

Speaking prior to Xavi in ​​Naples, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen launched an impassioned defense of his performances this season, accusing the media of « pouring petrol on the fire » in relation to criticism of his form.

Ter Stegen, 29, underwent an intervention on a knee injury last summer, which saw him miss the first two games of the season, but said he is in shape and happy with how he is playing.

« People always have opinions and know more than the next man, they even know more than me, » he said of comments about his form since recovering from injury.

« I always try to give everything. If I was [playing] badly or out of form, I would not be on the pitch because I have a responsibility to myself, the team and the club. I am super good and I feel good [physically]. I am working hard and, as is the case with the team, the results will come.

« Some of you [in the media] have written articles to pour petrol on the fire, because you like doing that, I am sorry, but I know what I am doing well and what I am doing not so well, so I am relaxed.

« There are a lot of things I can improve, like everyone, but I am working hard to try and help the team. I don’t give a lot of importance to what I am reading. I know everyone is entitled to their opinion, it is the job, it is football, it is what makes it interesting. »

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