Barca bank on rejuvenated Coutinho for Valencia test

Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho celebrates scoring their third goalagainst Sevilla, January 30, 2019. (Reuters pic)

MADRID: Since joining La Liga leaders Barcelona just over a year ago, Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho has endured a mixed time in Catalonia.

He joined Barca to much fanfare for a club record 142 million pounds from Liverpool and was hailed as the long-term replacement for former Spain international Andres Iniesta.

But Coutinho has often failed to replicate his Premier League performance levels at the Nou Camp, playing second fiddle to fellow big-money arrival Ousmane Dembele.

With the Frenchman injured, however, pressure has grown on Coutinho to up his game and he is finally showing glimpses of his true potential.

A starring role with two goals in the 6-1 Copa del Rey second-leg win over Sevilla in midweek was his best performance in a Barca shirt and fans will be hoping for more of the same when fellow Cup semi-finalists Valencia visit on Saturday.

“He’s a brave player who always tries things and takes risks,” coach Ernesto Valverde said of his number seven.

“Hopefully, this performance is something that can give him more confidence.

“We’ve now got a game against a side who also had a really intense Copa match and there’s little time to recover. I’ll have to pick a side to get the three points and we know that next week we’ll have another game, too.”

Valencia endured a disappointing first half of the season but four wins from five matches in all competitions, including a stoppage-time Copa victory over Getafe, has lifted them to seventh in the La Liga standings.

Third-placed Real Madrid, who sit 10 points behind leaders Barca, host fifth-placed Alaves on Sunday. Gareth Bale returned from his latest injury setback last weekend and is set to reclaim his place in the frontline alongside Karim Benzema.

Doubts remain, however, over the futures of midfielder Isco and full-back Marcelo, with both struggling for game time at the Bernabeu since the Argentine took over.

Elsewhere, former Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata looks set to make his Atletico Madrid debut when they visit Betis on Sunday, while Real Sociedad host Athletic Bilbao in the Basque derby on Saturday.