Why fit-again Araujo can be Barcelona's difference-maker in La Liga's title race

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Ronald Araujo Barcelona HIC 16:9
The Uruguay centre-back made his return from injury in midweek, after three months out, and will bolster a fragile Blaugrana backline.

Intercity's Aaron Pinan seemed certain to score. He had, by most measures, done everything right.

The striker evaded two defenders, rounded Barcelona's keeper, and created a manageable angle to slot the ball into the net.

But as he poked the ball goalward, it was met by a sliding Ronald Araujo, who diverted Pinan's effort out for a corner.

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It was the second of Araujo's major contributions to the game as Barcelona edged Intercity in the Copa Del Rey round of 32 on Wednesday night.

The fit-again centre-back, making his first appearance in just over three months, was his side's standout performer.

As well as preventing a certain goal by clearing Pinan's shot off the line, he scored with a towering header inside four minutes and dominated in the air defensively before being substituted after an hour.

His performance, though it came against lowly opposition, showed just how vital his presence is to Barca's backline, and highlighted why he just might be the difference-maker in their Liga title challenge.

"I’m very happy to have him back. He’s a warrior," Xavi said in his post-match press conference.

Araujo had been sidelined since September 26 with an adductor tear and during his time on the sidelines, his absence was noticeable.

Without the 23-year-old, Barcelona often lacked control and proved prone to errors, especially in centre of defence.

Ronald Araujo Barcelona La Liga 2022-23

Gerard Pique, far past his best, was unreliable, and eventually retired from football in October. Eric Garcia couldn't stay fit and has made only nine Liga appearances to date.

The net result was Marcos Alonso deputising at centre-back and that experiment did not go well as illustrated by the silly penalty he conceded against Espanyol last week as Barcelona dropped points against their city rivals.

Indeed, as Barcelona battled their way to the top of the table before the break for the 2022 World Cup, their only reliable centre-back was Jules Kounde, who has struggled with knocks of his own this season.

It would be difficult, then, to overstate the significance of Araujo's return to fitness.

The Uruguay international has been a fixture in Barcelona's side for nearly two seasons now. He was a regular last year, playing both centre-back and right-back, proving equally useful at both positions.

He started 36 of 43 games, and 25 of 30 La Liga contests – only coming off the bench when recovering from the occasional injury.

In truth, he was one of the few players to flourish under Xavi, steadily developing into a fine, all-round defender despite his youth.

His stats over the past year are certainly impressive. Araujo has a pass completion percentage of 88.5 percent, ranking in the 80th percentile among centre-backs, and 99th among full-backs, per fbref.

His 2.09 aerial duels won per 90 minutes is steady at centre-back, but in the 97th percentile for full-backs. He's an impressive one-on-one defender, too, winning 88 per cent of his tackles so far this season.

But it is, perhaps, the individual moments that have dazzled the most.

Ronald Araujo Barcelona Copa del Rey 2022-23

One immediately thinks of the slide-tackle on Alfonso Davies to prevent a certain goal in the Champions League last year. And the thumping header to salvage a point against Sevilla. For a Barca side enduring the oddest of times, such interventions have been vital.

And now, Araujo should prove even more important to the Catalan cause.

Robert Lewandowski may be suspended for the next three games but Xavi's backline is back at something close to full strength.

Andreas Christensen has seized the opportunities he has been given, while Kounde has returned from Qatar having maintained his fine club form at international level with France.

But at the centre of it all lies Araujo. The Uruguayan can be used at multiple positions, and has the backing of his manager.

Good in the air and reliable in a tackle, he hits all of the basics, with a penchant for the spectacular thrown in. He is unlike any other defender in Xavi's squad.

Barcelona face a tricky few months. They lead La Liga only on goal difference and have drawn a resurgent Manchester United in the Europa League.

Such is their fragile financial situation that they will likely need to reach the final of the continental competition in order to improve the squad this summer.

It's an effort that will require more than just one player. But Araujo, with his versatility, energy, aerial prowess and slide-tackles, could be the most important of all.