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Thomas Vermaelen showing he can be more than an emergency option

Craig Burley says Barcelona will have just enough to get past his former side, Chelsea, in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Craig Burley says Barcelona will have just enough to get past his former side, Chelsea, in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Thomas Vermaelen's Barcelona career to date has not been much of a career at all. A somewhat surprise signing in the summer of 2014, the club's sporting director at the time, Andoni Zubizarreta, memorably described him as a player capable of offering "immediate performances." In the months that followed, though, Vermaelen was seen more in memes than on the pitch, with Zubizarreta's words never far behind.

Due to injuries, Vermaelen's first appearance for Barca did not arrive until the final league game of the season against Deportivo La Coruna, with the league title already won. The Belgian centre-back had appeared just as often in Diario Sport's Halloween XI, as Thomas "Cadavermaelen." ("Cadaver" is the Spanish word for corpse.)

But now, and against all predictions, his Barca career is showing signs of life. After a nightmare first season, there was an improvement in the second year, with Vermaelen making 20 appearances and scoring the winning goal in a 1-0 win against Malaga. However, he was still blighted by occasional injury problems and his campaign ended in March. A loan spell at Roma threw up similar complications and after a debut red card, an injury and just 12 appearances in Italy, Vermaelen arrived back in Barcelona last summer.

Initially, the plan was to move him on. But new coach Ernesto Valverde had a rethink after the club's tour of the United States and opted to send Marlon Santos on loan instead. Vermaelen would remain as the club's fourth centre-back behind Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Javier Mascherano.

"Vermaelen's a good player that, unfortunately, has had a lot of injuries," said sporting director Robert Fernandez of the decision to keep the Belgium international in October. "In that sense, he's not reliable. I spoke with him and I told him that he would get a chance. There's time. It's a dangerous situation to leave yourselves with three central defenders. We couldn't do that."

Vermaelen quickly found out that being fourth-choice was not very profitable in terms of minutes. While on Belgium duty back in September, he spoke of the need to play regularly in a World Cup year, the possibility of leaving in January and even his disappointment that rules in Spain prevented him playing for Barca B in the second division.

Vermaelen's time at Barca hasn't been great but his fitness and form this season show he still has a bright future.

Things have changed dramatically since then, though. First of all, the Copa del Rey tie against Real Murcia allowed him to get some game time. Then, a suspension for Pique saw him catapulted into the side for Barca's top-of-the-table clash at Valencia last month, followed by the second leg against Murcia. And, now, injuries to Umtiti and Mascherano have seen him feature in five consecutive matches.

Yet Vermaelen isn't just featuring; he's playing pretty well. It's almost (almost) as if hidden beneath all those injuries, which have been more frustrating for him than anyone else, Vermaelen's actually a good footballer, as evidenced by his career through Ajax, Arsenal and Barcelona and 63 caps for Belgium.

"We don't have any doubts about Vermaelen," said Valverde at the weekend after the 2-0 win against Villarreal. "We have complete confidence in him. He's come into the side at a key moment for us and is responding really well."

Vermaelen is now on his longest streak of games in four years and his longest-ever run of Barca appearances. At the Estadio de la Ceramica on Sunday, he was the only member of the backline who failed to commit a foul, while also making the second-most ball recoveries (eight), bettered only by Jordi Alba (11).

"For the time being, the team's defensive balance is being held together by Vermaelen," wrote Sport's Xavier Ortuno in his column this week. "And we know that his knees are not up for the test of time. That said, his performances have been excellent. It's unlikely he will become the new Umtiti, loved by the fans, but the supporters have remembered that they have a Belgian by the name of Thomas in the team and that he's a good player."

Now 32, Vermaelen's not about to reinvent the wheel and his time at Barcelona still may not extend beyond the summer, but he's showing that he doesn't just have to be an "in case of emergency" option. He can be more than that especially if Mascherano, strongly linked with a move to China, leaves the club in January.

Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.

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