Without Messi, absent for the birth of his son Ciro, all eyes were on Coutinho and Dembele. They are two players who are being asked to define Barca’s future and how they are fitting in has caused debate and dark predictions in some quarters.
Dembele has had trouble fititng in. Two muscle injuries, a first year which logically is for adapting for a 20 year old and exaggerated scrutiny. Yesterday he played his best minutes as a barcelona player. And the most exciting thing was not what he did, but the potential of what he could one day be. Above all in the first half when he played with true daring. Maybe liberated from the weight of having to live up to Messi’s expectations.
The Frenchman was a nightmare for the defenders because being ambidextrous allows him to go inside and out and because he is a great assistant. We saw that in the move for Coutinho’s goal, with Dembele setting him up perfectly for a backheel goal. “Dembele is a great player, the play is all his,” said the former Liverpool man. Curiously it was while trying to backheel it that Dembele suffered his first injury of the season.
It was a goal of pure class which underlined the sensation that those two fit into a 4-3-3 very well. The Brazilian as a false winger, which allows him to be liberated and look for one-on-ones. And Dembele was too, because he doesn’t have to be so watchful about what’s going on behind him. A few days ahead of the Chelsea game he showed he can be a threat, either as a starter or as a sub.
Valverde struck to his word and picked a team without reserves, showing he prioritises La Liga. He didn’t rest Suarez, who opened the scoring against the only team he hadn’t scored against. He did it with a classic header. Meanwhile Samu Garcia’s red card for an ugly foul on Jordi Alba made things easier for Barca in an insipid second half. Valverde took off the starting full-backs Alba and Roberto.
Andre Gomes came on at right-back, an option that Luis Enrique tried without much look. We will have to see how Iniesta looks, ahead of the Chelsea game.
What we saw against Malaga was an aperitif. The Blaugrana slept 11 points clear of Atletico and gave the sensation they are getting the best out of Dembele bit by bit. Without Coutinho in the Champions, the Frenchman could be a crucial breath of fresh air in Europe.