2nd November 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Rafinha AlcÃ¢ntara has been outstanding for Barcelona this season. The Brazilian midfielder has recovered from a serious knee injury which kept him out for most of the last campaign to become a key player for the Blaugrana.
The 23-year-old Brazilian comes from impressive athletic stock. His father, Mazihno, was a World Cup winning midfielder with Brazil in 1994; his mother was a volleyball player of some note; and his older brother, Thiago, came through the BarÃ§a academy and now stars for Bayern Munich and the Spanish national team. He is also the cousin of Valencia's Brazil-born Spanish international forward Rodrigo.
Often compared unfavourably to his older sibling, this season Rafinha is stepping out of his brother's shadow.
Thiago was regarded as an exciting prospect when coming through the club's famous La Masia youth system, and was considered a genuine contender to be the eventual heir to Camp Nou legend Xavi.
But with Xavi and AndrÃ©s Iniesta the undisputed starters in the Catalan giants' midfield, Thiago found first-team opportunities rather hard to come by. He featured in a respectable amount of games for a young player but whenever a big fixture was on the horizon, the central trident of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta would invariably be lining up.
When former BarÃ§a boss Pep Guardiola took the reins at Bayern Munich in 2013, he wanted the Bundesliga champions to sign Neymar. The Bavarians realised that they couldn't compete with Barcelona's bid for the Brazilian star and instead signed Mario GÃ¶tze from rivals Borussia Dortmund. When Guardiola was asked who else he wanted to sign, his reply was, "Thiago order nichts" Thiago or no one.
So the prodigious midfielder moved to the Allianz Arena. Rafinha stayed behind, hoping to crack the Barcelona first-team in a way his brother wasn't quite able to.
Rafinha made his senior debut in a December 2011 Copa del Rey tie, coming on as a late substitute in a 1-0 win over CE L'Hospitalet. He would only make two more first team appearances over the rest of that season and the entirety of the next, but he was playing regularly for BarÃ§a B during this period.
He was given the opportunity to build his La Liga experience in the 2013-14 season thanks to a loan spell in Galicia with Celta de Vigo. Luis Enrique, the current BarÃ§a boss, was in charge of Celta at the time. The former Roma coach was aware of Rafinha's talent having briefly worked with the youngster while in charge of the Barcelona B team.
Rafinha played in 32 of Celta's 38 La Liga games that season and became a key player for the BalaÃdos club as they finished ninth in the table. The on-loan Barcelona star scored four goals, registered five assists and created a total of 52 chances. He also maintained a pass completion rate of 83 percent and found the target with 63 percent of his shots. Impressive figures for a 20-year-old.
The maturity and creativity of his performances with Celta led to Rafinha being named the La Liga Breakthrough Player of the 2013-14 season, fending off competition from the likes of Real Madrid's JesÃ© and SaÃºl Ã‘Ãguez who was on loan at Rayo Vallecano from AtlÃ©tico Madrid.
He also played a part in ending Real Madrid's title hopes that season, which would have been particularly satisfying for the BarÃ§a man. Celta beat Los Blancos 2-0 at BalaÃdos in the penultimate La Liga game of the season, meaning Carlo Ancelotti's men would be unable to catch city rivals AtlÃ©tico at the top of the table.
When Rafinha returned to his parent club, he was joined by Luis Enrique who had taken over from Tata Martino as Barcelona manager.
The gifted midfielder played 24 times in La Liga and six times in the Champions League as BarÃ§a secured the second Treble in their history. But Rafinha was still very much seen as a squad player. Over 45 percent of his league appearances and 83 percent of his European outings were as a substitute.
In September of last year, Rafinha suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee after a challenge from Radja Nainggolan in a Champions League group stage game against Roma. The injury kept the number 12 out until April.
This season, now fully recovered from his ACL injury, Rafinha has been outstanding, and is quickly becoming a vital part of Luis Enrique's team.
Already this term, Rafinha has scored five goals from six La Liga appearances. In the previous injury ravaged campaign, he played the same amount of games and scored just once. During 2014-15, he again netted only a single goal in 24 league appearances.
When delving into Rafinha's statistics for this season, his incredible growth becomes evident. He has completed 90 percent of his passes in La Liga and 100 percent of his passes have found a team-mate in his two Champions League appearances to date. He has also created three chances already, averaging 0.5 per game a vast improvement on the 0.3 chances per game he conjured in the 2014-15 season.
The most remarkable of Rafinha's statistics for the current campaign is that 100 percent of the shots he has attempted have hit the target, up from 50 percent in 2014-15. But not only have all of his shots tested the goalkeeper, they have all gone in: Rafinha has taken five shots in La Liga this term and has scored five goals.
His goals have been a mixture of spectacular curling efforts and close range tap-ins. And some of them have been of vital importance. In the 4-0 win over Deportivo la CoruÃ±a last month, Rafinha's first half brace broke the deadlock in a fixture which Barcelona have drawn in each of the last two seasons.
In the Balugrana's narrow 1-0 win over Granada at the weekend, not only did Rafinha net the game's only goal, he was also named man of the match.
His versatility has been an asset for Luis Enrique. The BarÃ§a coach has switched between the club's traditional 4-3-3 and a dynamic form of 3-4-3 this season. Rafinha has featured in central midfield, on the right wing and as a right wing-back.
After playing for both Spain and Brazil during his youth, Rafinha opted to represent the five-time world champions at senior level. His new-found form will undoubtedly have been influenced by his part in the SelecÃ£o's Olympic triumph in Rio de Janeiro this summer. A full debut soon followed in a 4-1 friendly win over the USA in September.
Much like his brother's time at the Camp Nou, Rafinha is still behind an established midfield trio now Iniesta, Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. But his recent performances will be giving Luis Enrique a selection headache.
After years of being thought of as Thiago AlcÃ¢ntara's younger brother, Rafinha is now a Barcelona star in his own right.
Rafinha - Stepping Out of His Brother's Shadow to Become a Star at FC Barcelona
2nd November 2016. By Ryan Baldi.