Thomas Vermaelen could be key for Barcelona against Olympiakos

There were 581 days between Thomas Vermaelen's last two Barcelona games. But the Belgian might not have to wait as long to make his next appearance for the club, which could come on Tuesday against Olympiakos, just seven days after he came in from the dark to take his place in the starting lineup against Real Murcia in the Copa del Rey.

With Gerard Pique suspended and Ernesto Valverde waiting until the last possible moment to make a decision on Javier Mascherano, who has a foot infection, Vermaelen might be needed to partner Samuel Umtiti, who has been the best of Barca's four central defenders this season.

That Vermaelen is still a Barcelona player at all comes as a surprise to some. Signed from Arsenal in 2014, injuries allowed him to play just once in La Liga during his first season with the club after Andoni Zubizarreta infamously said he was a signing capable of offering "immediate performances." Vermaelen featured 10 times in the league in the following campaign and was sent on loan to Roma last season, where he was once again blighted by injuries.

Speaking at a recent presentation to club members, Barca's sporting director Robert Fernandez said three times that Vermaelen is a "very good player" before adding the caveat: "But he's not very reliable." It was a clumsy way of saying that despite all the fitness issues, the 31-year-old is not a bad defender.

After all, even the fourth-choice defender, in theory, should be decent at Barcelona. Valverde opted to keep Vermaelen in the summer and instead sent Marlon Santos out on loan to Nice. The logic was obvious: Santos needs minutes to progress. But it was also, in some ways, a vote of confidence in Vermaelen.

The current problem is keeping Vermaelen happy, though. Last week's appearance in the Copa del Rey was the first time he'd pulled on a Barca shirt in an official game this season and the first time since he played against Getafe in March ... 2016. That's hardly ideal for the Belgium defender in a World Cup year.

"I had to stay despite interest from other clubs," he told reporters during the last international break. "Now I'm not playing, and so I'm in a difficult situation. I try to do extra training and stay positive, but you can't replace matches like that and I can't change anything for the moment."

Vermaelen even suggested he would have been willing to play for Barca's B team in the second tier of Spanish football, something which the competition's rules do not permit.

However, as he added himself: "In football, things can change very quickly -- a teammate can get injured, suspended."

That's the case this week, with Pique missing and Mascherano in doubt, which could hand him an opportunity. And if Barca beat Olympiakos, it's probable they will seal their place in the Champions League knockout stages. That would provide Valverde the chance to rotate his side for the final two group games against Juventus and Sporting Lisbon. Along with the return leg against Murcia at the end of November, that would mean more opportunities for Vermaelen.

It's not a lot, but it's enough to get him by until January, when he might push for a move in search of more regular football. But based on what Valverde said on Monday, interested clubs may get the same answer they got in the summer.

"We have four players for the two positions," Valverde said when asked if he was thinking about adding another centre-back in January, with Palmeiras' Yerry Mina an option. "Vermaelen's still not played in La Liga but we think with what we have we can move forward."

It might not be ideal for Vermaelen but it could be the best-case scenario for everyone. Barca need a defender to cover when there are suspensions, injuries or when they need to rotate personnel, and Vermaelen's track record doesn't suggest he's up to playing two matches a week. As long as he's drip-fed enough minutes, perhaps starting in Athens this week, it's unlikely he will lose his place on Roberto Martinez's Belgium squad.

Valverde might have to make changes to his side elsewhere in Greece, too, as he returns to take on the team he spent two spells and three years in charge of.

Captain Andres Iniesta is still missing with a thigh strain, while Ousmane Dembele, Arda Turan, Aleix Vidal and Rafinha all remain absent. There are also minor concerns -- which have been dismissed by Valverde -- over Lionel Messi, who was pictured holding his hamstring in the win over Athletic Bilbao on Saturday and again in training on Tuesday. There is no need to take any undue risks with the Argentine.