Following a dismal 1-1 draw in Las Palmas on Thursday night, Barcelona returned home and increased their lead at the top of La Liga by edging past second-placed Atletico at the Camp Nou. A superb Lionel Messi free-kick, his third in as many games, was enough to hand Ernesto Valverde’s side a valuable three points with Barca’s sturdy defensive display in the second half grabbing most of the plaudits.
It was a different, yet effective, approach from a club so used to dominating possession in these type of matches, with the Primera Division title slowly-but-surely making its way back to Catalonia. The pre-match talk was mostly centred around who would start in midfield for Los Cules following the disappointing performances of Paulinho and Aleix Vidal in midweek. The Barca faithful questioned the benching of Ousmane Dembele and Phillippe Coutinho, with both of the expensive purchases impressing during the 6-1 victory over Girona the week prior, yet somehow finding themselves on the sidelines as Barca struggled for creativity.
Eventually, both players found their way onto the field, Coutinho receiving much credit for his attempts to spark a side who looked as if they ran out of ideas, while Dembele was offered just 20 minutes of action. It was barely enough time to make an impression, and the former Borussia Dortmund man found himself back among the substitutes last Sunday.
Coutinho, however, had done enough to warrant a start in the biggest match of the season, finding himself placed on the right hand side of a four-man midfield with Andres Iniesta taking up stock on the left. It was a bittersweet moment for the Brazilian, who found himself thrust into action in such a momentuous contest, and yet he was being played out of position.
Coutinho is most effective when he’s able to cut in, onto his much-stronger right-foot, which opens up space for a devastating shot and overlapping Jordi Alba run, but he refused to let that deter him from making an impact. In the first few minutes the physicality of Atletico’s defence seemed to overwhelm him, but he didn’t take long to find his feet and settle in. Constantly looking to bring the play more centrally, Coutinho was able to drag Filipe Luis out from the left-back position, offering much space for Sergi Roberto to roam from his full-back spot.
He wasn’t afraid to take on the experienced left-hand side of Diego Simeone’s side, with both Koke and Luis usually tasked with shutting off any supply from the wing to the forward line. Coutinho was keen to make an impression, and by constantly taking on both La Liga stalwarts, he succeeded in doing so.
Much like in the contest with Las Palmas, Coutinho was often the main supplier of creativity for Barca. His hard-hit cross across the face of the goal almost brought about an own goal as it richocted off Diego Godin’s foot only for Jan Oblak to react quickly and push it around the post. His quick, intricate passing with former team-mate Luis Suarez was a tasty preview of what’s to come once both players re-familiarise themselves with each other, as a one-two between them brought about a stinging shot from Coutinho which looked as if it might fly into the top corner. Oblak was again equal to it, but those in attendance at the Camp Nou were clearly enjoying the show that Coutinho was putting on for them.
Expecting Iniesta to pull through two games in four days, at his wily age, proved to be a tad naive on Valverde’s part, as a hamstring injury ended the captain’s day late in the first half. Andre Gomes was his replacement, with Coutinho finally switched over to the left-hand side. As good as he may have been on the opposite flank, it’s easy to see just how much more comfortable Coutinho is in his preferred position. He’s not afraid to stop play if he finds himself in his own half, as he searches for the right pass, quickly unloading it to Sergio Busquets or Ivan Rakitic, while rushing to take up a more advanced position. Playing on the left also opens up more opportunites to link up with Messi, who often finds himself facing a wall once he approaches the opposition’s penalty box, with Coutinho only too happy to take up the on-ball responsibilities when such a scenario occurs.
That possibility became a reality on the 37th minute mark, as Messi danced towards the Atleti blockade, quickly laying it on for Coutinho who’s fizzing left-footed shot brought about another impressive save from Oblak. Alba, who had sped ahead of the ball, was frustrated with Coutinho’s decision but it serves as a reminder just how effective that left-side can be for Barcelona. Any defence in the world would shudder at the thought of having to choose between defending a Messi run, a Coutinho shot or an Alba cross. Much like the Suarez- Coutinho partnership, one can only imagine the effectiveness of such a play when all three become acquainted to each other.
The second-half saw very little Barcelona attacks, as Valverde decided to rest on the slight advantage his side had. The Blaugranes attempted to stifle the Atletico attack, in a complete reversal from how the opening period had gone, with Coutinho having to endure a much quieter 45 minutes as a result of the tactical switch. He was still looked upon as an important part of any potential Los Cules attack, with one burst seeing him skip past a couple of Atleti’s midfielders before being dispossed by Thomas Partey. It wasn’t long after that Coutinho repaid the favour as he intercepted a Partey pass to lead a counter-attack for Barcelona, although nothing came from it. As frustrating as the second half may have been for a player keen to impress in any chance he gets, he can take comfort in his overall solid performance. A good day for Coutinho was summed up when his substitution in the 84th minute led to the 98,000 in the Camp Nou leaping to their feet to applaud the €150 million man off. It was a justified reaction from a crowd whose admiration for such a talented player will only grow in the coming weeks.
Although many questioned the price tag at the time of his arrival, Coutinho has shown in the last couple of weeks just how important he can be to a Barcelona side chasing multiple honours. With Iniesta’s set for a spell out, and a stagnant midfield calling out for some creativity, the Brazilian should see even more opportunites coming his way in the near future. If the performance against Atletico is anything to go by, it won’t be long until Coutinho becomes a mainstay in the Blaugranes starting eleven.