While the arrival of Kevin-Prince Boateng seems to block the teenager’s route to the first team, it will not be long before he is pushing for a spot
Barcelona are in fine form, enjoying a commanding lead at the Liga summit and maintaining their hopes in the Copa del Rey and Champions League to boot. But a lack of depth at centre-forward continues to trouble the Catalans.
Luis Suarez has proved he is still one of the best in the world in and around the penalty area. In the Uruguayan’s absence, though, alternatives are thin on the ground, and the situation is even more acute now that Munir has completed a move away.
Lionel Messi, of course, is no slouch deputising as a false nine, but the talismanic Argentine is needed elsewhere. Such is the urgency to reinforce the attack that the unlikely names of Carlos Vela and eventual January recruit Kevin-Prince Boateng were the front-runners as short-term solutions in the transfer window that slammed shut on Thursday.
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Perhaps the Blaugrana are looking in the wrong place, however. Abel Ruiz has been gaining a stellar reputation right under Ernesto Valverde’s nose and is screaming out for a chance to prove himself at the highest level.
Ruiz, who turned 19 this week, is among the hottest young talents currently active in Barcelona’s B team. He has been with the Catalans since 2012, when he signed from Valencia, and alongside Rafa Mujica and Oriol Busquets is part of a group of wonderkids considered as possible additions to Valverde’s first-team plans.
His progress has been stunted in recent months by a niggling muscular injury which has kept him inactive since December. But prior to that setback, Ruiz was considered on the verge of breaking into the senior side, with his innate goalscoring instinct marking him out as a natural heir to Suarez over the next few years.
“I look closely at his aggression and at how he scores his goals,” Ruiz said of his Uruguayan idol in the summer of 2018, as he put pen to paper on a new contract that has the option to run until 2023, with a prohibitive release clause of €100 million. “He is one of the best in the world, if not the best.”
It is not only for Barcelona that the teenager is making waves. Ruiz was the star of the 2018 Mediterranean Games with Spain, scoring seven goals in four matches and a hat-trick in the final to beat Italy to the gold medal. His trophy case also includes an Under-17 European Championship medal and the 2017-18 UEFA Youth League title, where he scored in the final following a double from Venezuelan gem Dani Marques to seal a 3-0 victory over Chelsea.
Ruiz is nevertheless aware that he will have to bide his time at Barca. Last season saw him struggle for goals in the club’s B side as a raw 17-year-old, as the feeder club went down from the fiercely competitive Segunda Division. He has also attracted plenty of admirers from overseas, with Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal all reportedly interested in his services prior to signing fresh terms with the Catalans. But he is happy to stay patient and wait for his chance.
“It is what it is, this year I have learned a lot and we went down and now we want to go back,” Ruiz signalled ahead of the season’s start.
“We will have a good team. I am not thinking about offers or loans. I want to rest now and start the season at my best, grow and feed off the best.”
The team run by Garcia Pimienta currently lie in sixth place in their Segunda Division B group, three points shy of a play-off spot for promotion. The return of Ruiz to full fitness will be a boost for the feeder team, and will also be of interest to Valverde who, with Barca still active in three competitions going into this final stretch of the season, will need to rotate his squad, even the seemingly irrepressible Suarez.
Boateng’s arrival as extra cover up front may have shut the door for now on Ruiz’s chances of regular first-team football, but if he continues to develop at the rate he has so far it will surely not be long before he is making a name for himself alongside the likes of Messi and Philippe Coutinho.