Barcelona and Spain have been searching for a player to hold their teams together like glue, orchestrating the midfield as Xavi Hernandez used to do for club and country.
Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara seems the natural heir to Xavi, who left Barcelona in 2015 having retired from Spanish international the previous year.
But although Julen Lopetegui has made the 25-year-old Thiago a key cog in Spain’s midfield, it is significantly harder for Barcelona to bring back their former player.
He left in 2013 for 24 million euros ($26.1 million) and Spanish media reported on Monday that Bayern have quoted the Catalans an eye-watering 90 million to re-sign him.
Barcelona did not do enough to persuade Thiago to stay, with Bayern pouncing to sign a player who was keen to link up again with former manager Pep Guardiola, this time at the Allianz Arena.
“Pep has always had a lot of faith in me, and mein him, so if he was still the coach then yes (I probably would have stayed),” Thiago said at the time. Lopetegui has long been a fan of Thiago, who was one of the best players when the coach led Spain to the Under-21 European Championship trophy in 2013.
Thiago scored a hat-trick in the final as Spain beat Italy 4-2 and Lopetegui has now made him a key part of his midfield in the senior team, ahead of midfielders including Isco and Koke.
With Xavi retired and his long-time partner Andres Iniesta,entering his final years at the top level, the onus is on the likes of Thiago to assume the mantle.
He started as Spain beat Israel 4-1 in a World Cup qualifier on Friday and may feature in the friendly against France on Tuesday in Paris.
Several of the players from Lopetegui’s U-21 team are establishing themselves in the Spain side, including David de Gea and Alvaro Morata, but to safeguard the intricate passing style that led the country to 2010 World Cup and Euro 2008 and 2012 glory, the midfield maestro is essential.
That is why Barcelona are also attempting to recapture a player who has improved significantly under Carlo Ancelotti’s guidance in Munich, although reports in Germany suggest Bayern are ready to offer him a new deal.
If Thiago does succeed with Spain, Barcelona will have an uncomfortable reminder of what might have been for them — unless they are willing to pay a high price to bring him back to the Nou Camp.