The decisive phase of the season has arrived and the incombustible Ivan Rakitic has become a giant for Ernesto Valverde in his fourth season at Camp Nou.
The coach hailed the Croatian midfielder after the 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid on Sunday. "He's very important. Not just for this game. In general he gives us balance, hestabilises us and has everything, goals, strategy and hard work. It's a luxury to have him."
An injection of morale and self-esteem for Rakitic, who has always shown his tactical intelligence, his physical side and his quality in link-up play.
FROM NOTABLE TO EXCELLENT
Rakitic is delivering and that means he's getting game time. It's no surprise to see he's featured in 42 of the 44 games under Valverde this season. 3164 minutes out of 3960 available. 80 per cent.
Despite not being rotated, Rakitic seems fresh and alongside Sergio Busquets has benefitted from the switch to a 4-4-2 and the inclusion of a fourth midfielder. With one of Paulinho, Coutinho or Andre Gomes in the side, and Sergi Roberto's tactical discipline at right-back, Rakitic has to cover less ground and can be fresher when it comes to working to press with Busquets, and in the creation phase too.
With eight points advantage at the top of the table, Valverde might start handing out some rest to key players in La Liga. Iniesta's hamstring problem is a warning.
The risk is that with 13 games to go - which could be 18 if Barca reach the UCL final (1,620 minutes), players get exhausted. Rakitic has only missed the 5-0 win over Murcia in the Copa and the 1-1 draw at Espanyol in La Liga. He was a sub in five matches. Barça-Eibar (6-1) in La Liga; Celta-Barça (1-1), Espanyol-Barça (1-0) and Murcia-Barça (0-3) in the Copa; and Barça-Olympiacos (3-1), Olympiacos-Barça (0-0) in the Champions League.