Why a recovered Araujo could be Barcelona’s differential in the race for the La Liga title

The Uruguayan defender returned from injury in the middle of the week, after three months away, and will reinforce the fragile defense of Blaugrana.

Intercity’s Aaron Pinan looked certain to score. He had, by most measures, done everything right.

The attacker avoided two defenders, skirted the Barcelona goalkeeper and created a controllable angle to fit the ball into the net.

But when he kicked the ball towards goal, it was met by a slide by Ronald Araujo, who deflected Pinan’s shot for a corner.

It was Araujo’s second biggest contribution to the game as Barcelona beat Intercity in the last 16 of the Copa Del Rey on Wednesday night.

The recovered defender, who made his first appearance in just over three months, was his team’s standout.

As well as avoiding a clear goal by deflecting Pinan’s shot off the line, he scored a header in the fourth minute and dominated in the air defensively before being substituted after an hour.

His performance, although coming against lowly opposition, showed just how vital his presence is to Barca’s defense and underscored why he could make the difference in the Liga title race.

“I’m very happy to have him back. He’s a warrior,” Xavi said at his post-match press conference.

Araujo had been sidelined since 26 September with an adductor injury, and during his spell on the sidelines his absence was notable.

Without the 23-year-old, Barcelona often lost control and proved error-prone, especially in central defence.

Gerard Piqué, far beyond his best, was unreliable and ended up retiring from football in October. Eric Garcia has failed to keep fit and has only played nine league games to date.

The net result was Marcos Alonso replacing the centre-back and that experience didn’t go well – as illustrated by the silly penalty he conceded against Espanyol last week as Barcelona dropped points against their city rivals.

Indeed, as Barcelona struggled to top the table ahead of the 2022 World Cup break, their only reliable defender was Jules Koundé, who has also struggled with blows this season.

It would be difficult, then, to overstate the significance of Araujo’s return to fitness.

The Uruguayan international has been Barcelona’s starter for almost two seasons. He was a regular last year, playing at both centre-back and right-back, being equally useful in both positions.

He started 36 of 43 games and 25 of 30 La Liga matches – only coming off the bench when recovering from the occasional injury.

In fact, he was one of the few players to blossom under Xavi, becoming an excellent all-round defender despite his youth.

His stats over the past year are certainly impressive. Araujo has an 88.5 percent pass completion percentage, ranking in the 80th percentile among quarterbacks and 99th among quarterbacks, according to fbref.

His 2.09 aerial duels earned per 90 minutes is stable at halfback but in the 97th percentile for halfbacks. He’s also an impressive individual defender, winning 88 percent of his tackles so far this season.

But it is perhaps the individual moments that most dazzled.

We immediately thought of Alfonso Davies’ slide-tackle to stop a certain Champions League goal last year. And the strong header to save a point against Sevilla. For a Barça team facing the strangest of times, these interventions were vital.

And now, Araujo must prove even more important to the Catalan cause.

Robert Lewandowski could be suspended for the next three games, but Xavi’s defense is back in full force.

Andreas Christensen seized his chances while Kounde returned from Qatar having maintained his club’s form internationally with France.

But at the center of it all is Araujo. The Uruguayan can be used in several positions and has the support of his coach.

Good in the air and confident in the tackle, he hits all the fundamentals, with a penchant for the spectacular shot. He is unlike any other defender in Xavi’s team.

Barcelona are facing a difficult few months. They lead La Liga on goal difference alone and are level with a resurgent Manchester United in the Europa League.

The financial situation is so fragile that they will probably need to reach the final of the continental competition to improve the squad this summer.

It’s an effort that will require more than just one player. But Araujo, with his versatility, energy, aerial prowess and tackling skills, may be the most important of them all.

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