Lucas Barrios: A difficult first year in China

When Lucas Barrios arrived in China last summer, it was supposed to be as the new leading light of an already impressive Guangzhou Evergrande side challenging for honours on both domestic and continental fronts. The club may already have boasted well-paid South American talent in the likes of Dario Conca and Muriqui, but neither possessed the international repute of the arriving Paraguay international.

Despite having lost his place in the Dortmund lineup to Robert Lewandowski in a final season plagued by injury, Barrios arrived in Guangdong as a renowned goalscorer. After all, it had been the naturalised Paraguayan’s goals who had fired Dortmund to a famous Bundesliga title just a year before his exit. It is understandable, then, that supporters in China would be disappointed by a return of just six goals in the 20 fixtures he has managed over the past 10 months.

It has been a difficult year for the player in many respects, both on and off the pitch, even if there are signs of hope for the months ahead. Changes in regulation in the Super League allowed Barrios’ arrival, with Evergrande’s allowed quota of foreign players raised from five to seven for the remaining months of the 2012 season in order to help the club’s Asian Champions League ambitions. Korean Kim Young-Gwon joined Barrios in arriving at the Tianhe Stadium last summer, bolstering the club’s ranks.

Quotas, though, are not so easily manipulated, with the Asian Champions League allowing the registration of just four foreign players. Barrios, of course, was included, but at the expense of existing top goalscorer Cléo—formerly of Partizan Belgrade. It was a situation that would result in neither player ending the season content with their role and, ultimately, see the exit of his Brazilian rival in January 2013.

It has been a chain of events, though, that has not seen the improvement in performances that the club hierarchy would have hoped for. Arguably, Barrios was the least suited of the two forwards to Marcello Lippi’s preferred tactical setup but, such personnel decisions are rarely in the manager’s hands when a club is being bankrolled by wealthy investors. And, so it was that the “Pride of Canton” had a new star, but he would not be given an easy introduction to life in the Far East.

Having barely featured for Dortmund late in the 2011-12 season, Barrios arrived in China unfit and was forced to wait a full month before he was handed his first start in a red shirt. In just his second substitute appearance, a fixture with soon-to-be-relegated Hunan Jianye, expectations were raised further as a poked finish from a cross opened his Super League account in swift fashion. It was, though, to be his only goal in his first three months at the club.

While it was clear that the Paraguayan was struggling to settle at the club, injuries were also becoming a major issue. Within weeks of arriving at the club, Barrios was forced to miss games with what was described as heatstroke, while just weeks after a return that brought two goals in the space of five days, he was sidelined once more with a leg injury. On this occasion, it was to be season-ending. To compound matters, the opening spell of his 2013 campaign would last just a further three games before injury struck once more.

“It’s normal for players to get injured. However, Barrios got injured too much last year, so people are beginning to think he is injury prone. In fact, he is not that bad,” defended an unnamed Evergrande official last month. That may be the case, but that defence has only brought about further criticism of what has been perceived to be a lacklustre on-pitch attitude.

Shortly after his arrival, rumours quickly emerged from within the dressing room that the star wanted out. While the Brazilians at the club have formed a close community, with shared drivers, translators and other arrangements, reports suggest that Barrios has chosen to separate himself from those plans. Conca, the other native Spanish speaker at the club, lives in a separate community to all the other foreign players and, while close with Barrios, has his young family to take care of in his spare time.

Gradually, unnamed team-mates began to complain to the media—“He’s just arrived and wants to leave, what is he playing at?”, said one particularly critical voice. He has also, thus far, refused to give any exclusive interview to the Chinese media, as well as facing criticism in his homeland for missing international games. It is fair to say, then, that the Paraguayan has struggled to both adapt to his new country and, seemingly, alienated some of his teammates in the process.

The 2013 season, though, appears to have brought about some changes. Fresh arrival Elkeson, formerly of Botafogo, has replaced Cléo at the club, and with 10 goals in just five games has made a record-breaking start to life at the club. Conca and Muriqui, meanwhile, continue to be instrumental in the club’s smooth sailing in the Asian Champions League—a competition for which Elkeson has not been registered. The feeling is, then, that having appeared lethargic at the start of the campaign, Barrios has upped his training intensity to respond to the competition.

Four goals in eleven games this season is hardly exceptional, especially given that he is being eclipsed by his teammates. However, over the past month in particular, there have been signs of an improved attitude and work-rate on the pitch, directly resulting in two assists for colleagues. Evergrande will still privately expect more of their highly paid asset, but Lippi has been notably defensive of the player in public.

Matters, though, must soon come to a head. At the end of the Champions League group stage, Evergrande will have the opportunity to re-register their squad for the competition and, on current form, it is unthinkable that Elkeson will not be included. That, then, will mean that one of Barrios, Muriqui and Conca must miss out. Unless Conca should make an early exit from the club this summer—with his contract expiring in December—there can be little doubt about which player will ultimately be omitted.

The player himself will be aware of that fact and, given his already stated desire to leave China, he could be heading for the exit doors himself this coming transfer window. Should he leave Guangzhou, there will be few supporters mourning his exit. The Cantonese side, though, will not want to lose too much of their sizeable investment, and his future, then, may lie in the financial capabilities of any suitor. A speculated return to Dortmund would no doubt be the player’s preferred choice of destination this summer, but, for now, he must simply prove that he is still capable of reaching his former heights. There are many, in China particularly, who are increasingly doubtful of his ability to do so.

Header image courtesy of DPA.

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