Barcelona's Jeremy Mathieu can prove his sceptics wrong vs. Arsenal
A 2-0 lead from the first leg of Barcelona's Champions League round-of-16 tie with Arsenal is a solid one, but when the Blaugrana line up at the Camp Nou for the second leg on Wednesday, their coach surely won't risk tempting fate. Luis Enrique is likely to pick his strongest possible XI against the Gunners, the regular starting team that has won him five trophies since 2015, and is more reliable than a Swiss watch. There will be one change forced upon the Asturian however. At the Emirates, Gerard Pique picked up his third Champions League yellow card of the season, ensuring he won't be able to play the rematch against the Gunners. His manager will have to think carefully about who he picks to replace Barca's single most important defender.
Jeremy Mathieu will almost certainly be the man trusted with the job. In recent months, the Frenchman has taken a commanding lead over his rivals for the spot as Barcelona's backup centre-back, starting five games in that position since February while Marc Bartra and Thomas Vermaelen were only given token cameos. The Arsenal encounter will be a significant opportunity for the ex-Valencia man to prove his capacity to perform in a match of the highest importance, putting to bed any lingering doubts from previous sub-par displays in big games.
The defender's situation at present is a far cry from his difficult start to the season. His habit of switching off played a significant part in Barca conceding four goals against Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup in August, and also helped Athletic Club score an away goal in a 1-1 Spanish Supercopa draw a week later. Having ended 2014-15 with his strongest run of form in a Barcelona shirt, those strikingly poor summer showings resurfaced old memories of bad nights from a year prior, the clearest example of which was his unwelcomed contribution to Real Madrid's 3-1 Clasico win in October 2014.
Struggles like those in the toughest games led to a prevailing opinion in some sectors that, to quote Catalan supporters, Mathieu no té nivell Barca. That when it really matters, he isn't on Barca's level. In truth, through no fault of his own, the player has faced an uphill battle from the start of his time in Catalonia. There was plenty of scepticism when in 2014, after years of searching for the perfect centre-back, the Blaugrana's answer was to sign a recently converted left-back in his 30s. Underperforming in a few noteworthy fixtures only cemented pre-formed opinions that he wasn't the right man. When Pique and Javier Mascherano once again ended the recent Treble season as unrivalled starters in the heart of the defence, it wasn't only taken as affirmation of their return to form, but also as confirmation of the lower level of their competition.
Mathieu's biggest problem at Barca is that he lacks the natural footballing instinct of Pique or Mascherano, two players who deserve more credit for their brainpower than is often given. While the starting duo excels at reading situations quickly and cutting out danger before it can really develop, their counterpart tends to rely on recovery defending, his style more reactive than proactive.
When it works, his sliding challenges at full pace can be spectacular to behold, but when it goes wrong and he is left on the ground, a support-base accustomed to watching two centre-backs who consistently play on the front foot can turn into a harsh jury. Having blistering pace is something of a saving grace, as it allows him to put out fires and recover from mistakes better than most, but there is little doubt that he transmits less security than the two players in front of him in the pecking order.
That insecurity continues in his use of the ball. Since joining the club the veteran has struggled with Barcelona's need for sharp movement of possession, his laboured touch and slower decision making meaning build-up play tends to slow significantly compared to when Pique and Mascherano play in tandem. To his credit however, he does appear to have improved in this capacity recently. Starting against his old club Valencia in the Copa del Rey back in February, the defender's passing looked significantly sharper than it used to be, contributing to a high-tempo build-up from Barca. The tendency was confirmed a few weeks later when he was handed another start at centre-back against Sevilla in La Liga. That night, Mathieu coped admirably well with the high pressing of Unai Emery's side, only misplacing one pass in 90 minutes, the same number as Pique.
Focused hard work and plenty of hours in training is an explanation for Mathieu's growing comfort on the ball, and Arsenal will provide another test of just how comfortable he really is. The clash with the English side is one he should enjoy in principle. The Gunners' aerial prowess will give him plenty of chances to show off his own excellent heading ability, and there will likely be chances for his pace to stand out when the English side attempt to break.
Gunners boss Arsene Wenger will be praying for a lapse in concentration that can give his team a way in to the tie, but if Mathieu can stay focused and keep things simple on the ball, a Champions League knockout game in front of a packed crowd is a golden opportunity to convince sceptics that he is a valuable player for Barca.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter @LeeRoden89.