Oriol Romeu made his last appearance for FC Barcelona in the final seven minutes of the penultimate week of the 2010-2011 Spanish season.
With the league title wrapped up and a policy of protectionism installed as the Champions League final approached, Pep Guardiola turned to a less familiar line-up. Less familiar, that is, to the fans: Guardiola knew them all inside out and this was not an empty gesture, nor the choices coincidental. Barcelona's first team were handed the league trophy; many of Barcelona's second team were handed their own reward.
The young defender Marc Bartra, part of the Barcelona B team that had just finished third in Spain's second division but had been denied the chance to battle for promotion because of the presence of the first team in the division above, described it as an unexpected bonus, "a spectacular prize". Barcelona drew 0-0 with Deportivo La Coruña but that hardly mattered. "Playing for the best team in the world is a gift and a great opportunity," he said. Most would agree, one newspaper calling it "a song of praise to La Masía", the spiritual home of Barcelona's youth system.
Most, but not all. Bartra's Barça B team-mate Oriol Romeu had mixed emotions. For him, seven minutes was reward after a long knee injury, and the opportunity was welcome. But in truth, seven minutes did not feel like much.
Romeu began the season as the deep-lying midfielder in the traditional curtain-raiser, the Spanish Super Cup, against Sevilla at the Sánchez Pizjuán. It was 15 August, he was 18 and, post-World Cup, Barcelona's normal first-teamers were not yet fully ready. There was no Busquets, no Xavi, no Iniesta and no Valdés; no Villa, Piqué or Puyol and no Messi either. Sergi Gómez, also 18, joined Romeu in the side. Jonathan dos Santos was included too. And the goalkeeper was Rubén Miño. Barcelona lost 3-1 and the scoreline was, in Pep Guardiola's words, "a heavy price to pay, considering how the game went".
Romeu, in particular, had impressed as the deepest of the midfielders: quick and well positioned in front of the defence, using the ball swiftly and simply, mature and unflustered. In the second half, Sevilla introduced Fredi Kanouté and stormed back, an aggressive, high-intensity game paying off. But Barcelona's control in the opening 45 minutes, with Romeu in the middle of it, had been extraordinary.
It was supposed to be the beginning of many appearances in Barcelona's first team. Romeu still had to develop, to complete the stages upon which Guardiola insists, but he was promised that he would spend much of the campaign alternating between Barça B and the first-team squad. He was the natural back-up for Sergio Busquets and Barcelona had noted that there was little need to chase a replacement for Yaya Touré, recently departed for Manchester City. Romeu, who had joined Barça from local rivals Espanyol in 2004, was that player: muscular back-up for a team of tiny technicians.
Two weeks later, with a day left in the summer transfer window, and having given up on Cesc Fábregas, Barcelona signed Javier Mascherano. Romeu did not return to the first team until those final seven minutes against Deportivo.
A torn meniscus at the start of January curtailed his progression still further but his hopes of more opportunities had already been unfulfilled. Until then, he had none. Naturally enough, after recovery later in the season he would not have any either. Instead, he continued in the B team where he had played such a central role in promotion the previous year. English clubs, Stoke among them, had expressed an interest. When Chelsea offered him the chance to play first team football on first-team wages, he hardly had to think twice. "Were it not for [formally having first-team registration], he wouldn't have departed," a member of his camp told El País.
As for Barcelona, conscious of the bottleneck at the entrance to the first team, they were happy for him to depart – London could prove the perfect finishing school, an opportunity denied in Catalunya. Gerard Piqué provides the prototype, even if "prototype" suggests rather more forethought from the club than is really the case. It was not that Guardiola did not rate Romeu, but that others stood in his way. Romeu cost Chelsea €5m (£4.35m). For the first two seasons, Barcelona have a buy-back option – €10m in the first season, €15m in the second.
Bigger and stronger than most of his Barcelona team-mates at 6ft 1in and 13 stone, Romeu is the least "Barça" of the Barça midfielders. Physical, well positioned, tactically bright but less precise in his passing, less rapid, less smooth, in possession. Luis Enrique, his coach for Barça B, notes his attitude and presence rather than his eye for a pass.
As Martí Perarnau, the most diligent observer of Barcelona's youth set-up puts it: "Oriol is solidario. He never abandons his team-mates. He reaches every corner and covers every gap. He gives balance in the middle, allowing the rest to construct with freedom, and he goes into challenges strongly and decisively. He enjoys winning the ball back and pressuring the opposition. Sometimes, though, he is hasty in the transition of the ball."
A European champion with Spain at Under-17 level in 2008, a runner-up at Under-19 level last year and currently playing in Colombia with Spain's Under-20s, he is described by the Spain Under-21 manager, Luis Milla, as a player who "is always well positioned, tactically". Romeu, he adds, "uses the ball correctly in possession and always does the simple thing. He is a necessary component in any football team." André Villas-Boas certainly thinks so. "Romeu," he says, "is one of the midfielders with the greatest potential there is. He has a brilliant future."
This article has been amended since first publication
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