With Messi out, Coutinho, Dembele must step up for Barcelona
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — With Lionel Messi out with a broken arm, the two most expensive signings in Barcelona’s history have a perfect opportunity to step up and show their value.
Barcelona spent more than 300 million euros ($350 million) to sign Brazil midfielder Philippe Coutinho and France forward Ousmane Dembele last season as it reinvested the money — and then some — from Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain.
While both Coutinho and Dembele have shown several flashes of their world-class talent, neither has fully met the huge expectations that inevitably accompanied their price tags.
Messi set up Coutinho to net the opener and then added a second goal in a 4-2 win over Sevilla on Saturday in the Spanish league before he awkwardly fell on his right arm, which bent back and snapped a bone. The costly victory lifted Barcelona past Sevilla and to the top of the standings.
Now, while Barcelona’s all-time top scorer recovers, Coutinho and Dembele will be under pressure to lead the team in important games this week.
Barcelona hosts Inter Milan on Wednesday seeking a third victory in as many Champions League games. That will be followed by the always demanding “clasico” against Real Madrid at home on Sunday. Team doctors expect Messi to also be unavailable for three other games, including a visit to Inter next month.
“When (Messi) is with us he gives us a sense of security,” Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said. “He is the best in the world. You notice when he is not there, but whether he is with us or not, we have to keep going. We have a good team. We are playing well in time for the big week ahead.”
To acquire Dembele from Borussia Dortmund in 2017, Barcelona agreed to a transfer deal that could reach 147 million euros ($169 million).
After a first campaign in Spain limited by injuries, Dembele returned from helping France to win the World Cup and made a strong start to the season by scoring five goals in nine consecutive starts.
But when Barcelona faced a challenging Champions League match at Tottenham, coach Ernesto Valverde left the 21-year-old Dembele on the bench in favor of Arthur in midfield. Barcelona won 4-2, with Messi scoring twice and Coutinho once.
Valverde replied “I don’t know” when asked if he thought Dembele had lost confidence.
“He participated in the start of the season,” Valverde said. “He hasn’t been a starter in the last three matches, but we are counting on him . He is very talented. We expect a lot from him and we think that he has the capacity to improve.”
Coutinho arrived from Liverpool in January for 160 million euros ($184 million) as part of the rebuild following Neymar’s departure. But despite regular goals, he needs to be more of a playmaker for Barcelona following the departure of Andres Iniesta.
Valverde can now deploy the pair, along with Arthur, with Messi out.
Julen Lopetegui’s job as Real Madrid coach is in question following a club record scoring drought and a winless run of five consecutive matches.
But some of the problems that threaten to ruin Lopetegui actually began under predecessor Zinedine Zidane.
Even though the team won an unprecedented third Champions League in a row, Madrid played poorly in the other competitions during Zidane’s final season in charge.
Madrid had practically given up defending its 2016 league title after only three wins in nine matches from October to January. That came just before its stunning home loss to Leganes that eliminated it from the Copa del Rey.
Instead of significantly reinforcing a flawed team that also lost top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo in the offseason, Madrid signed a pair of backups and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Lopetegui needs his team to rebound immediately with a winning streak, starting against Viktoria Plzen on Tuesday and at Barcelona.
Madrid defender Marcelo said the players were behind Lopetegui. He compared the situation of the first-year coach to that of Rafa Benitez, who was fired after seven months on the job and replaced by Zidane in 2016.
“We are completely behind our coach,” Marcelo said. ”(The media criticism) is unfair. It is like what happened to Benitez. I don’t like it when coaches aren’t allowed to work.”