Back in January 2011, when Gonzalo Higuain was forced to undergo back surgery, Jose Mourinho was urgently looking for a striker to bolster his Real Madrid squad. "Karim Benzema alone is not enough," Mourinho claimed, and Lucas Barrios was his first choice to replace the Argentinian.
Little wonder. "The Panther," as Barrios has been known since his youth, was one of the hottest names in Europe, scoring at will for Borussia Dortmund, with Arsenal and Manchester City also reported to be following him closely. Bild newspaper estimated his market value at about 20 million euros, but Mourinho was eventually left disappointed.
Dortmund, who were on course to unexpectedly win their first Bundesliga title since 2002, didn't intend to sell their star forward. Barrios was their only option up front, since Polish youngster Robert Lewandowski was, back then, considered too raw and wasteful. Real eventually settled for a loan of Emmanuel Adebayor from Manchester City, which didn't really work out.
Barrios stayed at Signal Iduna Park and, by May, Dortmund were deservedly crowned champions. Their Argentine striker -- who chose to represent Paraguay, the homeland of his mother -- perfectly suited the style of Jurgen Klopp. Never the most technically gifted player, he was the ultimate penalty-area predator. A supreme athlete, who was discarded by Huracan as a kid for being too weak, Barrios ran himself into the ground, moved intelligently to make himself available when the team broke forward on the counter, and proved to be a very efficient one-touch finisher.
In this video -- made by Dortmund fans -- none of Barrios' goals will make you hold your breath, but his ability to be in the right place at the right time was something to be admired. His dedication and willingness to work for the team was immense.
Lucas arrived in Germany in the summer of 2009 for a bargain fee of 3.5 million euros, after bagging a goal a game on average for Chilean giants Colo-Colo. Dortmund were not considered one of Europe's elite back then, but the striker was instrumental in making Klopp's dream into reality. After netting for the first time in October in a 1-0 win at Monchengladbach, he never looked back, scoring 19 Bundesliga goals in his debut season, and adding 16 more in 2010-11. In between, he played part in Paraguay's run to the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals in South Africa. Ahead of his first ever Champions League appearance, the sky was the limit for him and, at the age of 26, Barrios was on his way to superstardom.
Less than four years have passed since that time, but it feels like an eternity. Does Mourinho even remember who Barrios is? The downfall of the striker came even faster than his meteoric rise, and he can't blame bad luck for his misfortunes, even though it definitely didn't help.
In the summer of 2011, Barrios was a starter for Gerardo Martino's Paraguay, who remarkably reached the Copa America final without winning a single game and playing outrageously defensive football. In the biggest game of all, against Uruguay, the coach decided to bench Lucas who was too tired, but sent him on with 14 minutes remaining and the team trailing 2-0. Barrios immediately pulled a thigh muscle, and the injury ruled him out for the first few weeks of the Bundesliga season.
The blow to Dortmund was considered to be huge, and Klopp even blamed Paraguay for the incident. However, when Barrios returned to fitness in September, he found out that his services were no longer needed. Lewandowski, who had looked so awkward and ineffective before, took his chance with both hands, cementing a place in the starting XI. Barrios was limited to the bench, becoming ever more frustrated and was soon ready to leave.
Of all the options open to him -- and there were a lot of them -- Barrios chose the least attractive from the professional point of view, but the best financially. Guangzhou Evergrande -- the richest Chinese club, who had just named 2006 World Cup winner Marcello Lippi as their coach -- offered the Paraguayan a four-year contract with an annual salary of almost seven million euros. That was difficult to refuse but, as far as football was concerned, Barrios lost his way completely.
For a player whose game is based on motivation, taking things too easy in a league that was supposed to be below his standard was always likely to be harmful. Injuries didn't help, and Chinese Super League rules that don't allow more than three non-Asian players on the pitch posed problems as well.
As local expert Cameron Wilson told ESPN FC, Barrios didn't expect to be benched so often and had problems with acclimatisation. "Squad rotation probably came as a surprise to Lucas," Wilson said. "In addition, he didn't adapt to Chinese culture and was homesick most of the time. It was clear that Barrios came to Guangzhou for financial reasons, and failed to make the necessary adjustments, on and off the pitch. Probably he isn't the type of personality who can deal with such changes."
Given these issues, moving to Russia, where cultural acclimatisation can also be extremely tough, was not a good idea, but that's what Barrios did in the summer of 2013. Salary aspects played an important part again, and it looked like the striker sacrificed his playing career for the good of his bank account.
Spartak Moscow, who signed him for seven million euros, are one of the least suitable clubs for injury-prone foreign stars. As Barrios struggled for fitness in his early weeks in the Russian capital, most of the journalists were quick to label him a failure. Lucas insisted that coach Valery Karpin reminded him of Klopp, but the reality proved depressing. The Paraguayan wasn't given any chances to prove himself, only started four games in the entire 2013-14 season, and scored once.
That's when Montpellier came into the picture. The 2012 Ligue 1 champions decided to gamble on a loan for Barrios, only to be disappointed initially. Not only did the striker fail to score in his first 12 games, he looked apathetic and disinterested most of the time. Eventually, rumours about his inevitable departure started to appear in the press, as Spartak reportedly agreed a two million-euro deal with Internacional of Brazil.
Montpellier coach Rolland Courbis, in a conversation that probably helped them to improve mutual understanding, told the story of how that played out in a recent news conference.
"If you want me to leave, I will," Barrios angrily told his new coach, who himself is trying to rebuild his career at Montpellier.
"No, I just want you to play a little better," Courbis answered.
Lucas stayed and scored his first goal for the team at the beginning of December, while he gradually started to regain confidence. Suddenly, there were glimpses of the form from his Dortmund days and, once again, he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
Indeed, 2015 started brilliantly for Montpellier and their new star. The striker put on a good show in a 2-1 win over Marseille, and then scored three times to bring to seal a 3-2 triumph at Metz. Remarkably, it was the first hat trick for Montpellier since Olivier Giroud's effort in 2011, prompting many outlets to ask whether the southerners have finally found the Arsenal striker's heir.
On Saturday, the answer seemed to be positive again. Barrios provided a goal and an assist in a 4-0 thrashing of Nantes, one of Ligue 1's best defences, and helped his side to their third win in a row. Now Montpellier are surging up the table: they sit sixth and are starting to dream of European qualification.
"The Panther" has certainly roared back to form with six goals in his last seven games, but it might be too early to say that he is back to his best. However, at the age of 30 he has quite a few years left in him if he stays fit and doesn't lose his motivation again, so Dortmund fans may be feeling a little nostalgic watching his energetic celebrations for his new club.
Dortmund's new signings Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos are finding it extremely difficult to fill the void left by Lewandowski's move to Bayern in the summer, showing what a huge task it is to find your feet in Klopp's system. Barrios managed to do so much faster, and -- as his future is very much uncertain in the summer -- maybe, if his revival continues, he will get a chance to show Dortmund fans what they have been missing.
That said, with Dortmund currently second from bottom in the Bundesliga and Montpellier on the rise in France, perhaps a stay in Ligue 1 may suit him better. His current club certainly won't want to let him go when his loan expires.