When Barcelona signed Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool in January, instead of last summer they claimed they got him on the cheap. They may have saved money but did the fact that he arrived cup-tied cost them their place in the Champions League?
Coutinho’s two assists helped Barceona beat Valencia 2-1 and take another huge step towards the title. His first pass for Suarez to open the scoring was one of the best of the season.
He could still win a league and cup double this year with Barcelona. How differently their Champions Leaugue adventure might have ended if he had been on the pitch and not ruled out because Barça could not force him out of Anfield before the season started.
We could now be talking about the Coutinho semi-final with Liverpool facing Barcelona instead of the Salah semi with Mohamed Salah against his old club.
Coutinho’s pin-point corner was headed in by Samuel Umtitii to ensure Barcelona took all three points. They now need just two more wins and a draw to be crowned domestic champs.
What was striking about their line-up to face Valencia was the absence of the player they did manage to buy last summer – Ousmane Dembele. It seems Ernesto Valverde has very little faith in a player who could end up costing as much as 145m euros.
He played just five minutes in the two legs against Roma and he was on the bench again. It’s enough to suggest they would cut their losses this summer if they had a buyer.
One player who probably will be on the move this summer is Valencia’s Goncalo Guedes. He is on loan from Paris Saint Germain and has played so well this season that the French want him back, Valencia want to keep him, and Manchester United are following the situation.
He started very brightly with a curling shot that Marc Andre ter Stegen pushed away for a corner.
Barcelona’s first chance fell to Suarez but he miskicked from Andres Iniesta’s cross.
On 15 minutes, however, he made no mistake. It was a goal made in South America, via Liverpool. Coutinho saw a pass where it didn’t look like one was possible and eluding former Arsenal centre-back Gabriel Paulista, Suarez finished with the most subtle of pokes past Neto.
Guedes was still asking questions of Barcelona. He tested Ter Stegen and then had a shot deflected for a corner by Gerard Pique.
Valencia had not been affected by the goal and on 23 minutes Rodrigo couldn’t believe he had not equalized.
His shot was part blocked by Umititi and part palmed away by Ter Stegen. The keeper had made the mistake that led to the chance but his save more than made amends.
The atmosphere remained flat with the empty seats dotted around the Camp Nou and Messi’s slightly bowed head matched the gloomy weather. The rain had eased up before kick-off but Messi was playing without spark and he put one late wide free-kick straight out of play.
Valencia started the second half well and again Rodrigo should have equalized. Umtiti slipped and was robbed by Santi Mina. The ball ran to Rodrigo but his shot was cleared off the line.
Just seconds after the French defender had almost cost his team their lead, he doubled it. Coutinho was again the provider. His corner from the right was met by the centre-back who powered his header past Neto.
With half an hour left there was applause for Dembele as he started to warm-up – it seems the supporters want to see him on the pitch more than Valverde.
With 20 minutes left Messi finally cracked a smile. Jordi Alba dropped an intelligent cross on to his left-foot and with a volley as he fell backwards he just missed Neto’s top right-hand corner. His smile broadened further when he teed-up Iniesta but the midfielder’s volley was saved by Veto.
Coutinho finally made way for Dembele but the Frenchman’s ten minutes brought Valencia back in the game. He brought down Jose Gaya and Dani Parejo squeezed his penalty under Ter Stegen’s dive to narrow the final margin to 2-1.