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Barcelona’s secret weapon is... Paulinho?

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Premier League flop comes up smelling like roses in Spain.

Real Sociedad v Barcelona - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Messi. Suarez. Iniesta. Busquets. Pique. Barcelona is sporting a healthy number of mega-star players. They’re the headline grabbers, the ones we’re all talking about.

Meanwhile, laboring in the background is a 29 year-old journeyman midfielder who was a bust at Tottenham, disappeared into the wilds of China and emerged at Barcelona this summer to jeers from fans, no shirt sales (as in, Barcelona themselves didn’t bother to stock any in their shop) and a meager 2,000-person turn-out for his unveiling.

Oh, and he’s Barcelona’s third-leading scorer. And they’re winning.

We may remember Paulinho as Tottenham’s bright new hope in 2013. He was coming off a sparkling summer in which he scored three goals for Brazil in the Confederations Cup and was awarded the tournament’s Bronze Ball. As a box-to-box scoring threat, he seemed to be a good fit for their midfield.

Instead he labored mightily and mostly in vain. In two uninspiring years he played 45 games and knocked in six goals. In the summer of 2015 he vanished off the radar, moving to China’s Guangzhou Evergrande. Basically, everyone believed that was the last we’d see of him.

“If someone had said then that I would be preparing to play in the World Cup and at Barcelona, I would have said: ‘Never! Never, ever.”

-Paulinho,; source: Guardian

Other than Barcelona’s front office, probably no one saw it coming. After missing out on Marco Verratti last summer, to everyone’s astonishment the Catalans forked over €40 million to bring him in. Faced with an underwhelming reception, Paulinho just put his head down and worked.

“You have to face challenges with courage. I will try to do my job and I am prepared. Coming here is a dream. It’s a very satisfying moment. I will give everything.”

-Paulinho, source: Goal

Astonishingly, it’s worked.

With Neymar flying off to Paris on a magic carpet of oil money and replacement Ousmane Dembélé crocked, someone had to knock-in some goals besides Messi (23 goals, 12 assists) and Luis Suarez (17 goals, 4 assists.) It wasn’t to be midfield magician Iniesta (1 goal, 1 assist) nor his stablemate Ivan Rakitic (2 goals, 4 assists.)

Enter... Paulinho? Yes, as it turns out. To date he has 8 goals and 2 assists in La Liga.

He’s become a vital cog in Ernesto Valverde’s 4-4-2.

“I value him very positively. He is a player who, when he arrived, it seemed there were certain doubts about him. He is a player who isn’t the same style as others in the team, who are more specialists in positional play.

”He is something else. He moves differently, he gets in the area by surprise and he is so effective because he has a lot of faith. He combines well with [Leo] Messi and Luis [Suarez] in the final metres.”

-Ernesto Valverde; source: Barca TV via Goal

“He gets in the area by surprise.” Key words to his effectiveness. He doesn’t make those classic Barca darting runs to get on the end of short, sharp Messi passes. He’s a late arriver, in the manner of a certain former Chelsea player we know and love.

“I’ve always been this kind of player: since youth level I’ve been a midfielder who can arrive and finish. I’ve almost never played in Busquets’ position. My way of playing is similar to Lampard.”

-Paulhino; source: Guardian

It’s going to be a very different-looking Barcelona taking to the pitch at Stamford Bridge tonight. They won’t press high. They’ll sit deeper. They’ll only have two out-and-out forwards (Philippe Coutinho is cup-tied.) And if we’re not careful, they’ll have a midfielder ghosting into the box at the most inconvenient times.