Make no bones about it, Wednesday’s Clasico fixture is Barcelona’s most important of the campaign.
Firstly, because it’s the next game in the calendar and no one ever looks past their most immediate concern, and secondly, it will set the tone for Saturday’s match-up against the same opponents.
The carrot of ending Real Madrid’s domestic season before March has begun in earnest is a realistic one, and a tantalising prospect.
There’s little point in trying to dress Clasico No.1 up as ‘only’ the Copa del Rey too. A win, or a scoring draw of 2-2 or more, sends Barca through to a final where they’ve a chance to make history - again.
You simply don’t pass up opportunities like that, and to that end, Ernesto Valverde has to play his best XI.
That means there can be no place for an under-performing Philippe Coutinho, but the coach has to find space for Ousmane Dembele.
People were on Ousmane Dembélé's case week in week out not knowing Coutinho had the real issues.— Franklin. (@asantekente_) February 23, 2019
The Frenchman was the spark that Barca needed at the start of the second half in Seville, and whilst he’s a diamond that still needs a fair amount of polishing, particularly where his decision making is concerned, he is a genuine threat for opposition defences.
Compare and contrast how much more on the front foot Barca were when he was introduced against Sevilla.
A frightening turn of pace will keep Los Blancos’ back four on their toes all game, and with Real desperate to end Barcelona’s stranglehold on the competition, that desperation could play right into the visitors’ hands.
Dembélé the star of the game— AMED MTR (@ahmedmontassir3) February 23, 2019
- The most personal player, made a goal but what he did more, instilled fear in the Sevilla team. pic.twitter.com/Z0dZbpcIaR
Injured for the first leg, and only used as a sub in the first league Clasico, Dembele hasn’t really had the chance to properly test himself against Barca’s arch rivals.
He will, however, have taken note at just how much joy Malcom got in the opening 90 minutes of this semi-final.
Finally handed some significant time on the pitch, the Brazilian was a thorn in Real Madrid’s side throughout, constantly earning free-kicks in dangerous areas.
With his countryman, Coutinho, not anywhere close to affecting play at this juncture, it has to fall to Dembele to take on that mantle.
This video is showing how Ousmane Dembele is learning from Lionel Messi. It’s scary how the moves and attacks are exactly alike!— Mozo Football (@MozoSports) February 15, 2019
This video is amazing. ⭐️ pic.twitter.com/CfZIbZvzlx
He is gaining in confidence all the time, and a perfect assist to Messi against the Andalusians will have done him no harm at all.
If he’s given the chance to help Barca gain the upper hand on Wednesday, it could cement his starting position at the club, at the expense of their most expensive import.