Barcelona star De Jong relishes return of La Liga title race
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"What you have to understand is I really, really like football," says Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong. "It's not pretend. I enjoy every minute of it."
De Jong's first touch at the Camp Nou came between a thumbs up and a smile. As he juggled the ball in his new kit, the crowd cheered and as they cheered, he smiled again.
It was July 5 last year and De Jong was being unveiled after a 75 million-euro ($85m) move from Ajax. On his first day, the Dutchman arrived at his new flat to find a restaurant booked for him and his girlfriend by Sergio Busquets, the player many assumed De Jong was bought to replace.
Later, he met Lionel Messi, whose name he had printed on the back of a Barca shirt he owned as a boy.
"Maybe it makes him feel old but he was already the best player when he was very young so I think it's more because of that," De Jong, who at 23 is almost 10 years younger than Messi, tells AFP.
"I dont have it anymore, it got too small for me."
It brings into focus the speed of his rise. Ajax sporting director Marc Overmars first spotted De Jong playing for the under-16s and what stood out was not only his ability to distribute, but dribble.
"When I was young I used to play a lot with my friends and it felt natural to beat players so I kept doing it at Willem II and then Ajax," De Jong says.
"We don't see it as much in the game now, I think because the spaces are so much smaller. Wingers used to get one against one but now there are always two people in front of them.
"The tactical aspect is more important and the physical ability is better, so opponents run harder to close the spaces. It makes it harder but it's a challenge I enjoy."
- Much more to come -
De Jong's first season in Spain has been assured, with 23 starts out of 27 in the league before it was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But by his own admission, there is so much more to come as Barcelona prepare to return to action in Mallorca on Saturday.
"I have played some games that were good and others that were average or below average even," De Jong says.
"I had a bad period, I never played really badly I don't think, but I know I can do a lot better."
The interrupted season also has 11 games remaining. Barcelona are top, two points ahead of Real Madrid, but still adapting under new coach Quique Setien, who was appointed in January.
"The last round before we stopped we took back first place but we weren't in our best shape," De Jong says.
"The league was changing a lot, we weren't consistent but Madrid weren't either.
"I think we have already progressed since the new coach came in. You saw the team was already growing and I think we will be a better team than the one you saw before the suspension."
As always, much could hinge on Messi, whose fitness has become a concern after he missed three training sessions last week with tightness in his thigh.
"He's looked good to me," says De Jong. "I'm not on the medical staff but there was nothing bad."
- Suarez bonus -
Luis Suarez has recovered from a knee injury, an unexpected bonus after his season was presumed to be over.
"I'm so happy he is back and I have to say in training he looks sharp, his movement has been great. To me, he looks more than ready to play," De Jong says.
Suarez's return could even tip the balance. Is he under-appreciated?
"Under-appreciated, yes, I think so. If you look at his statistics, he is maybe the best number nine there is," De Jong says.
"Look at his goals, his assists, he definitely gets the credit from me. For me, there's no debate about him. He can contribute a lot to us and the team will be better with him in it."
Under the strict health guidelines brought in, games without fans could ease Barcelona's problems away from home while most assume an extra two substitutions will favour the bigger clubs as well.
"I think it will be an advantage for us," says De Jong. "We have a strong bench so we will not be losing as much quality as other teams."
It will be a first for everyone and for De Jong, a first La Liga title race reaching its climax too, but he plans to enjoy it.
"Of course the pressure is high but I think I'll always be like this," he says.
"When I'm smiling on the field it's because I'm enjoying playing or seeing someone else doing something extraordinary. I still try to play with the same freedom that I've played with my whole life."
© 2020 AFP