Coutinho versatility an asset to Barcelona, says Valverde

Ernesto Valverde insists Philippe Coutinho can excel in a number of different positions for Barcelona as he looked back on a busy transfer window at the club.

Coutinho has made a low-key start to his Barca career on the back of his blockbusting €160m move from Liverpool.

The Brazil international was initially laid low by a thigh injury before appearing as a substitute against Espanyol in the Copa del Rey and playing an hour as late goals from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi sealed a dramatic 2-1 La Liga win over Alaves at the weekend.

Coutinho is in line to feature once more when Barca host Valencia in the first leg of their Copa semi-final on Thursday.

The 25-year-old’s appearances have come nominally on the right of midfield for Barca so far and Valverde feels his versatility will be a major asset.

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“He works well in several positions,” the head coach told a news conference. “He can play at number 10 or on the left as he did at Liverpool or even the right, as in the Brazil national team.

“And in both Liverpool and in Brazil things have gone well for him. That’s why we signed him – his versatility will help us.”

Coutinho’s arrival at Barca was a contributing factor to Gerard Deulofeu exiting on loan to Watford and Valverde confirmed Russia 2018 had been in the Spain winger’s thinking.

“I talked to him and we both thought that the best thing was a way out,” he said.

“We think the best thing is that he can have minutes because there is also a World Cup and there are options [for Deulofeu] to go.

“I am happy with him personally because of how he has been here.”

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Arda Turan and Rafinha have also departed on initial loan moves but Aleix Vidal remains at Camp Nou despite speculation linking him with a switch to Roma.

“He’s not the undisputed starter but he’s been playing and helping regularly, entering some games in the second half and starting both against Espanyol,” Valverde added.

“In addition, three players who play in a similar position to that of Aleix have left. That’s why it’s good for him to stay.”


Liverpool owners blasted over Coutinho sale: ‘Fans don’t care about bank balances, they care about winning’

Liverpool’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, have been blasted for selling Philippe Coutinho, with Christian Purslow pointing out that “fans don’t care about bank balances, they care about winning”.

The Reds bowed to pressure from La Liga giants Barcelona during the current transfer window as they sanctioned the €160 million sale of a prized asset.

Coutinho had expressed a desire to complete a “dream” move, but questions have still been asked of Liverpool’s willingness to do a deal mid-season rather than wait until the summer.

Purslow feels a Champions League quest and top-four push in the Premier League has now been compromised, with those at the Anfield helm accused of prioritising money over on-field success.

The former managing director at the Merseyside giants told Sky Sports: “It’s quite exceptional to see a top team in contention in two important trophies (the Champions League and the FA Cup), and obviously the day-to-day business of making sure you’re in the top four. They’re all very, very live season challenges Liverpool face.

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“To effectively put money in the bank and take a player away – any football expert would say the likelihood of winning the Champions League without him has reduced, the likelihood of coming fourth is reduced, and they have already gone out of the FA Cup – is in pure footballing terms, a gamble.

“Strategy and business is a very artificial separation because this sport centres around what happens on the field. There’s no use to Liverpool strategically to consistently not win trophies and, God forbid, not get top four.

“I would have thought the businessmen in the ownership group would not have needed to have taken that gamble. I would have expected – if they needed to give the player certainty, that he was going to fulfil his dream and go to Barcelona – then the deal could have been done with either money now with a loan back, or a contract deferred delivery of player and money in May.

“This player is a starter for Brazil, playing brilliantly. If Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Barcelona are all in for Coutinho on the back of a World Cup, this player may have been £200 million.

“The winners were Barcelona, the losers were Liverpool – other than their bank balance. Fans don’t care about bank balances, they care about winning.”

Liverpool money over success Christian Purslow

Purslow acknowledges that a deal may have been done eventually, as the likes of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano left Anfield during his time at the club, but he feels the timing of Coutinho’s sale was all wrong.

He added: “We saw Xabi Alonso go to Real Madrid, we saw Javier Mascherano go to Barcelona – they do go eventually.

“What we’re debating is whether Coutinho was always going to end up at Barcelona, we’re debating why they would take that money and risk in January.

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“The Klopp project is two-and-a half-years underway here and probably the next step in Jurgen’s success would be a trophy. Liverpool have the makings of a really dangerous team in the Champions League.

“Home second leg in the knockout stages? Nobody wants to go there even defending a one or two-goal lead. (If you reach) the last eight of the Champions League, anything can happen.

“But one thing is for certain, it’s less likely without Coutinho. I would have thought Fenway would have prioritised winning that.”


Klopp rules out Liverpool replacing Coutinho before January transfer deadline

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is not seeking a replacement for Philippe Coutinho before the transfer window closes.

Coutinho joined Barcelona for €160 million this month, leaving Klopp without one of his squad’s most potent attacking threats, but the German does not feel the need to rush out for an addition.

Liverpool have strengthened their defence with the £75m signing of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton, and Klopp claims there are no plans to reinforce in other areas in the short term.

“Philippe Coutinho is not to replace in this window,” he said at a media conference. “We can stop thinking about that.

“It’s not about replacing players – it’s about using our own opportunities and our own tools, players, tactics, formations.”

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Liverpool’s 18-match unbeaten run came to an end when they went down 1-0 to Swansea City last week and they subsequently lost 3-2 at home to West Brom in the FA Cup on Saturday.

Klopp claimed Coutinho’s departure was not a factor in those results, saying: “We didn’t play well at Swansea but a few days before we played fantastic against Man City. We could have won at Swansea. It doesn’t say anything about the performances, only the results.

“I don’t think Phil [Coutinho] would have helped a lot in these situations.

“The solution is not out there on the transfer market. We always have open eyes but we first of all have to use our players.

“In the long term we will do a lot but in the short term not a lot will happen.”

Looking ahead to Tuesday’s match against Huddersfield Town, Klopp said Jordan Henderson’s return to fitness after a hamstring injury was a boost to his side.

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Henderson and James Milner came on for the last 25 minutes of the defeat to West Brom, and the manager was impressed by their displays.

“[Henderson] did really well when he came on, like Millie did,” said Klopp. “They brought some fresh ideas and confidence, they showed up and both had good moments in the game.

“He is very important for us.”


Luis Suarez defends subbed Coutinho after first La Liga start

Luis Suarez praised team-mate Philippe Coutinho after the club-record signing made his full debut for Barcelona in their win over Alaves.

After his cameo off the bench in the Copa del Rey on Thursday, Coutinho was in the starting XI as La Liga leaders Barca came from behind to beat Alaves 2-1 at the the Camp Nou.

A reported €160 million arrival from Liverpool, Coutinho experienced a relatively quiet match before coming off for Paco Alcacer in the 66th minute, but goalscorer Suarez defended the Brazilian.

“It’s difficult to debut in the Camp Nou in the league,” Suarez said.

“Philippe was very good. He did very well trying to drive in the game and the team are happy with his contribution.”

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Barca were pushed by visiting Alaves, who took a surprise 23rd-minute lead via Celta Vigo loanee John Guidetti.

But Barca hit back in the second half when Suarez equalised, scoring for the eighth Liga match in succession before Lionel Messi curled in a free-kick with six minutes remaining.

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The result ensured Barca remain undefeated and 11 points clear atop the table.

“If you don’t concentrate you don’t win, sometimes looking at the league positions of rival teams does you no good,” said the Uruguay international.

“In the second half we knew what we were playing for and we got the three points.”


Suarez & Messi save Barca’s unbeaten record, but Coutinho & Iniesta will take time to gel

Barcelona’s unbeaten record in La Liga is intact. For a while it looked like the Blaugrana, like last season, might be beaten at Camp Nou by Alaves. But Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi intervened to secure yet another victory.

It is 21 rounds without defeat for the Blaugrana now and that equals the best season start set by Pep Guardiola’s great side, unbeaten until the 22nd round of matches in the 2009-10 season.

But Barca struggled for long periods against an Alaves side revitalised since the arrival of former Blaugrana defender Abelardo as coach. The ex-Spain international has overseen a marked improvement at the Basque outfit and his team had picked up 13 out of a possible 21 points prior to the trip to Camp Nou.

They will be desperately disappointed not to have added to that tally on Sunday, so impressive were they for an hour of this match. John Guidetti had given Alaves the lead in the first half and there were further opportunities to score against a Barca side that created little until the final half an hour.

Barca boss Ernesto Valverde had handed Philippe Coutinho a full debut after the Brazilian’s bright cameo against Espanyol in the Copa del Rey on Thursday. The 25-year-old found life more difficult here, however, and will take time to gel with Andres Iniesta in the same side.

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Whereas Coutinho replaced Iniesta at Camp Nou in the cup clash, this time the two midfielders were picked in the XI and neither player appeared completely comfortable.

The Brazilian was a willing worker and won the ball back seven times for Barca, but he was unable to find the spaces afforded to him against Espanyol on Thursday night.

Before the match, Valverde had assured that the two can play together. “Coutinho has to get used to what his team-mates have been doing this season,” he said. “He will have defensive duties, of course, even though he has more of an attacking profile than Iniesta.”

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And he added: “They are different players, but they can complement each other perfectly on the pitch. Iniesta is more of a midfielder. Coutinho is more offensive, he takes on shots from distance and he can play wide or through the middle… but he also has to fit in with what we are doing.”

Logically, that will take time, and ultimately it was something of a frustrating full debut for Coutinho, who was substituted after 65 minutes as Valverde sent on Paco Alcacer in his place.

It was no coincidence that Barca scored twice after that, the league leaders playing their best football of the night after the Brazilian had departed. And his exit also liberated Iniesta, the Spain midfielder setting up Suarez for the equaliser with a remarkable run and cross to the far post.

Andres Iniesta, Barcelona, Hernan Perez, AlavesPhilippe Coutinho Andres Iniesta Barcelona Espanyol Copa del Rey

Iniesta is the only player to provide an assist in La Liga in each of the last 15 seasons (69 in total), while Suarez has now netted for the past eight games in the competition after a slump earlier in the season.

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As so often, though, it was left to Messi to win the match, the Argentine rifling home a fantastic free-kick to claim all three points. That was the 30-year-old’s 21st free-kick goal in La Liga, moving him one ahead of Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo. And it was a worthy match-winning strike.

So Barca march on and are still 11 points clear of second-placed Atletico. And next weekend, at Espanyol, they can better the record set by Guardiola’s side as they seek to go unbeaten all season in the Primera Division.

Despite an off-colour performance in this match, they will certainly take some stopping this season – especially when Iniesta and Coutinho get used to playing with one another.


Messi targets Barcelona titles over sixth Ballon d’Or

Lionel Messi insists a sixth Ballon d’Or does not form part of his personal target list, with collective honours at Barcelona of greater importance.

The mercurial Argentine remains locked in a fierce battle with eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo for the right to be considered the best player on the planet.

Real Madrid’s talismanic forward has got the better of that duel in recent years, claiming back-to-back Ballons d’Or and four of the last five prizes.

Messi is emerging as an early favourite to reclaim that title in 2018, with 26 goals to his name in all competitions this season , but the 30-year-old superstar maintains that his focus is locked on the collection of team titles.

He told reporters at a sponsor’s event: “I’ve already said my objective is not individual prizes but to get all the trophies available.

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“Hopefully, we will finish [the season] in the best way. I think we’re on the right track.

“Luckily, things are going well. I’m happy with how things are going, although there’s still a long way to go. It’s the same [goal] as every season: to try to win everything.”

Ernesto Valverde is the man hoping to guide Barca to multiple honours this term, with the former Athletic Bilbao boss having succeeded Luis Enrique at Camp Nou.

Valverde endured a difficult start to his reign, with Neymar leaving for Paris Saint-Germain for €222 million in a turbulent transfer window, while the 2017-18 campaign began with a 5-1 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana.

Barca have only lost once in all competitions since that tie, though, and Messi is delighted with how things have gone under a new regime.

He added on Valverde’s impact: “It was clear from the start. He said what he wanted and we adapted. It wasn’t very different to what we were already doing.

“We became strong defensively and we have players of high quality further forward, who can win matches.”

Ernesto Valverde Barcelona

Messi is even content with Valverde’s rotation policy, insisting he accepts it is for the team’s benefit.

“It’s a topic I live with normally and calmly,” he said.

“The coach decides it. We talk about it and I have no problem with rotation, just like other team-mates.”

Messi is also pleased to have seen Barca bolster their ranks during the winter transfer window with deals for Philippe Coutinho and Yerry Mina, especially in light of Javier Mascherano’s move to Hebei China Fortune.

“Both Coutinho and Yerry could have come in the summer but they weren’t able to,” he said.

“Masche is leaving and we have a centre-back to replace him and we’re happy that’s the case. We’re happy they are with us.”


‘It has been a special day’ – Coutinho thrilled after making Barcelona debut

Philippe Coutinho revelled in his debut for Barcelona after receiving words of wisdom from former star Ronaldinho.

Coutinho made his first appearance since joining from Liverpool in a club-record deal reportedly worth €160million as Barcelona overcame rivals Espanyol 2-0 in the Cope del Rey quarter-finals.

The Brazil international playmaker came off the bench and impressed in a 22-minute cameo Thursday , Barca sealing a 2-1 aggregate triumph at Camp Nou.

“It has been a special day because these were my first minutes with this club,” Coutinho said.

“It was a great night. I am very happy and excited, because of how the fans welcomed me.

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“I was a little nervous and anxious because of how big a club this is, but the way everyone welcomed me helped me to relax.”

Coutinho’s bow came after former Barcelona attacker Ronaldinho had a message for his countryman pre-match.

In a video posted to Twitter, Ronaldinho said: “It’s Ronaldo speaking here to wish you all the luck in the world.

“Give it everything and make people happy, that is what they like.

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“Enjoy yourself and the rest will follow.”

Coutinho could make his La Liga debut when leaders Barca host Deportivo Alaves Sunday.


Barcelona put Espanyol in their place – Busquets

Sergio Busquets suggested Espanyol’s celebrations at the end of their Copa del Rey first-leg quarter-final victory over Barcelona was motivation for his side to turn the tie around.

Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi struck first-half goals as Barcelona progressed to the semi-finals 2-1 on aggregate, moving into the last four for the eighth season in a row, the club’s longest run in the competition reaching this stage.

Oscar Melendo had struck late in the opening leg to give Espanyol victory over their Catalan rivals, but Barca came from behind to keep on track for a fourth successive Copa del Rey title.

“Even if there are favourites, we have to prove it,” Busquets said. “Yes, we were better in the tie, more than the scoreboard reflects.

“In Cornella it was a more insane game, they celebrated in Cornella as if they had passed the round, but the tie lasts 180 minutes and we put things in their place.”

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Philippe Coutinho came off the bench to make his Barcelona debut to cap an ideal night for Ernesto Valverde’s men, who remain on track to win the treble.

With Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid both exiting the Copa del Rey in the quarter-finals, losing to Leganes and Sevilla respectively, Busquets highlighted that the Copa remains towards the top of the agenda for Barca.

“The truth is that this is a tournament that we have won a lot in recent years,” Busquets added.

“It is clear that there are priorities in the season, but the Copa is very important for us.

“We are in a privileged position in LaLiga [11 points clear of nearest rivals Atletico], in the Copa we are there. 

“We are going to go step by step, which is what has allowed us to be where we are, I hope that in the end we will be fighting for all.”

Barca were angered by some of the challenges made by Espanyol players on Messi in the closing stages and Gerard Pique criticised referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz.

“He has a way of refereeing that does not please any team and that usually happens,” Pique said. 

“I would not give him more attention, we do not win anything talking about him.”


Valverde has high hopes for Coutinho after promising Barcelona debut

Ernesto Valverde has high hopes for Philippe Coutinho after Barcelona’s record signing made his first appearance for the club in a Copa del Rey victory over Espanyol on Thursday.

Barca trailed 1-0 from the opening leg but goals from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi in the first half turned the tie around for the holders, who are seeking a fourth straight Copa del Rey title.

With Barcelona’s place in the semi-finals all but secured, Coutinho came off the bench for the last 22 minutes and impressed in his link-up play with Messi particularly.

Coutinho replaced Barca captain Andres Iniesta – the player many assume the Brazilian was bought to replace – and Valverde hinted at how he sees the former Liverpool playmaker fitting in at Camp Nou.

“We have a lot of hope for him,” Valverde said after Barcelona booked a Copa semi-final spot for the eighth year in succession.

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“In the sense that he will be good for our game, he can help us with his self-confidence, his ability one-on-one, to see the free player when he is close to the area, the danger is sensed.

“[Coutinho had] a simple game, but I think it went well. Let’s see, this is the beginning.”

Barca’s path to claiming the Copa del Rey title is a lot clearer after both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid were knocked out at the quarter-final stage, Zinedine Zidane’s men suffering a shock defeat at the hands of Leganes.

Sevilla and Valencia are the other potential opponents awaiting Barca in Friday’s draw but Valverde would not be drawn on talk of a crisis at rivals Madrid, with Zidane accepting his job is on the line.

“Madrid are a great rival,” Valverde said. “We are in the semis, it is because we have worked hard.

“In these games you cannot have a bad day because they take you out of the competition.

“I do not stop to think about the rest of the teams. I worry about mine, to be good and to move forward in our competitions.

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“Football is what it is, we all know this dynamic, we know that when we win we are the best and when we lose, we are the worst.

“Zidane has done a lot at Real Madrid and has all our recognition.”


Coutinho leaves Barca wanting more after slick debut cameo

The Barcelona fans had been made to wait. After the Catalan club missed out on signing Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool in August, the Brazilian was finally signed by the Blaugrana earlier this month and following a 20-day injury layoff, he belatedly made his debut on Thursday.

Barca boss Ernesto Valverde had hinted earlier in the week that the Brazilian could feature following his €160m move from Anfield, yet there was no place for the 25-year-old in the starting line-up against Espanyol at Camp Nou.

The Blaugrana, winners of the Copa del Rey in each of Luis Enrique’s three seasons in charge, were looking to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit after last week’s narrow loss at Cornella to seal their place in the semi-finals.

And by the time Coutinho came on to replace Andres Iniesta with 22 minutes remaining, they were already two goals up on the night after a first-half header from Luis Suarez and a deflected strike by Lionel Messi from outside the box before the interval.

Prior to kick-off, it was another former Liverpool player, Javier Mascherano, who was saying goodbye to the Barca faithful after seven and a half seasons at Camp Nou. And his No.14 shirt already had a new owner in another ex-Red: Coutinho. 

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The Camp Nou crowd stood to applaud as Coutinho clapped hands with Iniesta and ran on for his first Barca appearance after 68 minutes, slotting into a four-man midfield alongside Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Paulinho (who had replaced Aleix Vidal just minutes earlier).

Immediately apparent was the midfielder’s desire to be on the ball, to receive and carry it forward, always looking to be positive by picking out team-mates in advanced positions or running down the channels.

Mostly, though, he kept it simple, with some neat link-up play and passing, although one ambitious through-ball for Paulinho only just failed to find his international team-mate on the edge of the area.

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It was a bright cameo and Barca fans will want to see more. Coutinho is cup-tied in the Champions League after featuring for Liverpool in the competition, but he can be useful in the Copa del Rey and also La Liga.

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Valverde’s side survived a late penalty appeal from Espanyol and also nearly added a third as Messi headed against the post, securing a semi-final spot in the cup for an eighth season in a row.

With Iniesta likely to be used more sparingly in the second half of the season and probably kept in reserve for the big Champions League games, Coutinho should receive plenty of opportunities in the weeks ahead.

And on this early evidence, he looks set to be a very good signing indeed.