Will Coutinho start and talking points as Barcelona face Valencia in Copa del Rey

Andy West 31/01/2018
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Barcelona marched into the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey after getting through Espanyol, and will now face Valencia in the first leg at the Camp Nou, on Friday.

Here, we take a look at the talking points ahead of what promises to be an exciting game.

Danger signs for Barca?

This has been a remarkably smooth season so far for Barcelona, who have breezed through both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League as well as establishing an 11-point lead at the top of La Liga.

Sunday’s meeting with Alaves, though, was the most difficult game they have encountered for a long time, with a shock home defeat looking on the cards for a long time after John Guidetti opened the scoring for the visitors. Eventually late goals from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi rescued the points for Ernesto Valverde’s men, but the game could be seen as a warning sign that their progress might not be quite so straightforward for the remainder of the season.

In particular, Barca suffered from a lack of attacking penetration until striker Paco Alcacer stepped off the bench to give his team a greater sense of purpose and direction, and Valverde must be toying with the idea of starting the Spanish international frontman against his former club tonight.

Of course, Sunday’s game – which did still result in victory – could prove to be nothing more than a minor blip, but another disjointed performance in this cup semi-final, with silverware on the line, would set alarm bells ringing that Barca might be starting to lose their way.

Lionel Messi 7

Deadly duo: Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez

Will Coutinho start? And if so, where?

Sunday’s meeting with Alaves was also notable for January signing Philippe Coutinho making his full debut for Barca, and it was a fairly promising performance from the ex-Liverpool man before he was withdrawn from the action midway through the second half.

However, the Brazilian’s selection on the right-hand side of midfield reopened the debate about where he will fit into his new team, with many observers noting that it was an unusual position for a player who has always appeared more comfortable cutting inside onto his right foot from the left-hand side.

Ultimately, Coutinho’s best chance with Barca will probably be to establish himself as the long-term replacement for Andres Iniesta in the ‘interior’ position to the left of centre in midfield, but the fact that the club captain was also selected against Alaves prevented Coutinho from playing there at the weekend.

On Thursday night, however, manager Ernesto Valverde is expected to rest Iniesta to keep him fresh for the resumption of the Champions League, potentially opening the door for Coutinho to make his first start for his new club in his favoured position. If so, all eyes will be upon him as he takes his first steps in the almost impossible task of replacing an icon.

In action: Philippe Coutinho

In action: Philippe Coutinho

Revenge-minded Valencia on the slide?

Valencia have harrowing memories of their last Copa del Rey visit to Camp Nou, suffering a nightmarish semi-final first leg 7-0 thrashing as Gary Neville’s brief and ill-fated reign reached crisis point a couple of years ago.

Considering the strides made by Los Che under new manager Marcelino it’s almost unthinkable that such a heavy defeat will be repeated this time around, and the few Valencia survivors from that wretched night – including skipper Dani Parejo – will certainly have a huge extra incentive to put up a better fight.

However, Valencia’s confidence has been dented with a disappointing run of results in recent weeks, with Saturday’s 4-1 defeat against Real Madrid – a margin of scoreline which flattered the victors – marking a fifth loss in 11 outings for Marcelino’s men.

And Valencia’s quest is not helped by injury problems, depriving them of four key players for tonight’s game, with experienced central defenders Ezequiel Garay and Jeison Murillo, all-action midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia and dangerous winger Goncalo Guedes all missing out.

Valencia players look dejected after their loss to Real Madrid.

Valencia players look dejected after their loss to Real Madrid.

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Barcelona's runaway Pichichi leader Lionel Messi hits the woodwork nearly as often as he scores

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Lionel Messi's luck with the woodwork is holding him back - to an extent.

It’s not surprising when Lionel Messi sets records, or surpasses personal bests that should have been impossible, but this year, he’s raised the bar higher, so to speak.

La Liga‘s runaway top scorer has also hit the woodwork 13 times this season, after finding the post with a free-kick in the first half against Alaves on Sunday. That tops his mark of 12 from 2014/15, his previous… ‘best’?

Of course, Messi being Messi, he found the back of the net with a free-kick later in the game, taking his tally for the league campaign to 20. That meant he maintained his four-goal lead over team-mate Luis Suarez, who had scored earlier in the game to draw Barcelona level.

It seems unlikely that even a striker as prolific as Suarez will be able to deny the Barcelona talisman another Pichichi.

But the Argentine could have been out of sight already with a little more luck.

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'It's Barca or nothing', says Gerard Pique after extending contract at Barcelona until 2022

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Gerard Pique hopes to see out his playing days at Barcelona after signing a contract extension that ties him to the club until the summer of 2022.

The Spain international will be 35 when his new deal ends and insists he only ever saw his future at the Nou Camp, saying it is “Barca or nothing”.

Having come up through the youth ranks with Barcelona, Pique returned to his home-town club in 2008 after four years on Manchester United’s books and in the last decade has won 24 titles with the Catalan giants.

He told a press conference as reported by the Spanish media: “I’m very happy to have renewed my contract and I hope it will not be the last.

“If I complete my contract I will have been at Barca for 14 years, plus another six or seven in the youth teams.

“I’ve been a socio (member) since I was born, Barca feels like home, it’s the club of my life.”

Pique’s new deal includes a buyout clause of 500 million euros (£441.6m), but that is academic to a player who never wants to leave.

He added: “I always felt that I was going to stay and I never thought about anything else.

“And I hope to stay for life. Obviously I’ve thought about my family and my kids, who don’t want to move. But in the career I’ve had here, we’ve almost always won something and we’ve competed until the end.

“And I hope we continue being competitive until I retire.

“I’m not interested in playing for another team. If I wasn’t wearing the Barca shirt, I would have given up. I play football because I play for Barca.

“It’s Barca or nothing.”

The former Barca youth player – who began his junior career in 1997, aged 10 – moved to Old Trafford in 2004 before spending time on loan at Real Zaragoza. He rejoined his boyhood club under Pep Guardiola in 2008.

At Barca he has scored 37 goals from 425 appearances and has won three Champions Leagues, six LaLiga titles, five Copa del Reys, five Spanish Supercopas, three Club World Cups and two European Supercups.

The defender has also won the World Cup with Spain in 2010 and the European Championship in 2012.

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