Valencia v Barcelona key battles with Lionel Messi and Rodrigo Moreno the main figures

Alex Rea 8/02/2018
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Marcelino and Ernesto Valverde

A Luis Suarez strike is the dividing line between Barcelona and Valencia as the two sides head to the Mestalla Stadium for the second leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final clash on Thursday.

The runaway La Liga leaders hold a slender advantage and will be hoping to keep alive their trophy treble hopes with safe passage through to the final.

However, Los Che displayed their resilience in the first leg and having been resurrected by boss Marcelino, will provide arguably Barca’s toughest test of the season so far.

With that in mind, we look at the key battles which could form the central narrative for the last-four tie.

RODRIGO MORENO V SAMUEL UMTITI

Marcelino’s success is built on defensive rigidity within a 4-4-2 framework using pace on the counter to create chances.

When Ivan Rakitic was brought off in the first leg, Los Che looked to break the lines but found their path blocked by the tower of strength Umtiti.

The Frenchman, alongside Lionel Messi and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, has been one of Barca’s outstanding performers this season and the 24-year-old produced a monstrous display in the first leg (two blocks, two interceptions, two tackles and 58 passes)

At the Mestalla, however, Rodrigo Moreno has already plundered against Barca this season, opening the scoring with a close-range strike in the corresponding league fixture.

Marcelino’s penchant for technical players has brought the very best out of the 26-year-old this season and with Yerry Mina set to debut, Umtiti will be expected to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring the forward doesn’t add to his 12-goal haul this season.

GEOFFREY KONDOGBIA V LIONEL MESSI

Kondogbia missed the first leg through injury but returned for Sunday’s La Liga defeat to Atletico Madrid and was superb.

It’s difficult to comprehend the midfielder’s absence from the France squad but with this season being his first real show of consistency after years on the move, the 24-year-old is finally beginning to fulfill his promise.

Another player revived by Marcelino, no one at Valencia has made more tackles (59) or blocked more passes (21) than Kondogbia with the Inter Milan loanee registering second for interceptions (31), successful dribbles (28), headers won (31) and passes made (976) for Los Che in the league this season.

Simply put, he’s been a colossus in every area of the game, screening the defence well, breaking up play, retaining possession under pressure and picking intelligent passes.

It’s at this juncture we introduce the man who needs no introduction. The list of superlatives to describe Lionel Messi run as long as his achievements but the Argentine’s blurred role of playmaker/goalscorer has elevated him to a new level this season.

In Valverde’s 4-4-2 he’s been handed a free role to create from deep then attack the box and his venomous ability to effectively stroll before snapping into action means Kondogbia will have to be at full concentration to limit his impact.

EZEQUIEL GARAY V LUIS SUAREZ 

Suarez’s slow start after an injury ravaged pre-season was mistakenly analysed as a marker of his decline.

At 31, the Uruguayan’s powers of persistence married to his unnerving ability to find a finish were believed to be on the wane but he is once again proving he’s arguably the best centre-forward on the planet.

He’s scored 13 goals in his last 12 games across all competitions and plundered the crucial winner at Camp Nou in the first leg – his ninth in nine against Los Che making them his favourite opponent in a Barca shirt.

The visitor’s three-pronged avenue of creation – Messi through the middle, full-backs Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba out wide – ensures the supply line to Suarez is well stocked and it will be on the returning Ezequiel Garay to marshal the forward.

Suarez is a yellow card away from missing the final and the fear of a booking could play into Garay’s gameplan, however.

After all, it doesn’t take much to wind up Suarez and his enthusiasm is half his style, curbing that could suppress Barca.

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Philippe Coutinho is amazed by genius of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta and reveals reason for joining Barcelona

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Philippe Coutinho

Philippe Coutinho is revelling playing alongside Barcelona icons Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta.

The Brazilian completed a sensational €160million switch from Liverpool in January and is settling into life with his new club after two La Liga starts.

The 25-year-old always made clear his desire to join the Catalan giants when interested first emerged in the summer of 2017.

Now with the opportunity to train and line-up alongside a five-time Ballon d’Or winner and a World Cup champion, Coutinho says he is living in a dream land.

“It’s an incredible feeling when you look across the dressing room and see Andres, Leo, Luis [Suarez] and Sergio Busquets, and everyone else,” Coutinho told La Liga World on Sky Sports.

“They are players I used to watch on TV or play with on PlayStation and now I am sharing the same dressing room, it’s incredible for me.

“Andres is a genius and it’s an honour to share the same dressing room. I hope to learn a lot from him. Of course there is only one Iniesta. I have come here to try to create history of my own and learn from these great players.

“Like everyone else I thought Messi was the best player in the world and to be here with him now is a fantastic honour. It’s a great experience watching him in training and in matches…the way he can transform a match is unbelievable.

“He is really laid back as a person. Like everyone else he gave me a great welcome. This was a shock because you see he is a real person.

“I have known Luis for a while, we played together in England and were always together there. I talked to him a lot before I came and he has helped me settle down here. He is an incredible player. He is always scoring, pressuring the opposition, fighting for the ball, he is a real star.”

Coutinho’s versatility to play in midfield and in a forward trio is one of his best assets but it’s created debate as to where his long-term future in the Barca XI resides.

Many anticipated he would eventually replace the aging Iniesta but the pair have started together with the club-record buy operating on the right of a front three.

And Coutinho says he is happy to play anywhere with ambitions of adding to his medal collection.

“I have always said I want to work harder so I can develop, learn, grow and improve,” he added.

“I love to play football and when I come on the pitch I want to do my best to help the team. It’s up to the coach the position I play.

“I am coming here to learn and contribute with my style of football. The most important thing for me in my time here is to win titles. My dream in this shirt is to make the fans happy, win trophies for them and enjoy playing in the Barca colours.”

Barcelona are in Copa del Rey action Thursday as Ernesto Valverde’s side look to book their place in the final, carrying a 1-0 advantage into their trip to Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium.

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Yerry Mina to make Barcelona debut and more talking points ahead of Valencia Copa del Rey clash

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Barcelona take on Valencia in the second-leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final clash on Thursday night under the lights at the Mestalla (12:30am+1).

The away side carry a slender 1-0 advantage into the fixture, and with a treble still very much on for Ernesto Valverde’s side this term, he will expect no let-up from his players as they look to secure a spot in the domestic cup final and retain the title which they won against Alaves last term.

Here, we look at three Blaugrana talking points ahead of the last four meeting:

YERRY MINA TO MAKE BARCELONA DEBUT

Yerry Mina is set to be thrown into the cauldron of the Mestalla for his Blaugrana debut. Barcelona, so far, have been pretty cautious over the Colombian and allowed the man from Palmeiras time to find his feet in Catalonia. But, with Gerard Pique out injured along with Thomas Vermaelen, the 23-year-old is a certain starter in Valverde’s XI on Thursday night. He is the only other natural centre-back in the ranks and although Valencia away will be far from a walk in the park, it’s the perfect time to blood him alongside Samuel Umtiti.

Two other options are deploying either Nelson Semedo or Sergio Busquets in one of the central positions or selecting youngster David Costas, which would be a real gamble. Expect Barca to give Mina a go and Umtiti can guide him through the process. Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto will take up the full-back berths in a defence which has only conceded five goals in 10 matches since the turn of the year.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 04: Yerry Mina of FC Barcelona looks on from the bench during the La Liga match between Espanyol and Barcelona at RCDE Stadium on February 4, 2018 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Yerry Mina was an unused sub for the clash against Espanyol at the RCDE Stadium.


PHILIPPE COUTINHO IS READY FOR ANOTHER 90 MINUTES

After playing the full match – his first 90 minutes in a Barca jersey – during Sunday’s draw at Espanyol, the Brazilian showed he is now up to full speed fitness-wise and played well in treacherous conditions in Catalonia. Spanish media were quick to pounce on Coutinho, though, suggesting that his creativity was too little on the left flank and his influence was scarce when he floated inside. Pretty harsh. The former Liverpool man made more key passes (3) and crosses (7) than any other Barcelona player as well as putting in a shift defensively against his dogged former club, and also made three tackles.

While Barca had to dig deep in that game and were without the mercurial Lionel Messi for the best part of 60 minutes, Coutinho’s energy levels were never in doubt. With that in mind, he’ll start in a front three alongside Messi and Luis Suarez with Paulinho, Andres Iniesta and Busquets making up the midfield against a combative Los Che outfit. Given Coutinho is cup-tied for this month’s Champions League clash against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge (February 20), the 25-year-old will be used regularly up until then.

Barcelona's Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho runs during the Spanish league football match between RCD Espanyol and FC Barcelona at the RCDE Stadium in Cornella de Llobregat on February 4, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)

Coutinho showed class in awful conditions to get the ball down on the deck.


A FRESH LIONEL MESSI SHOULD SEE BARCELONA TO VICTORY

It’s always an unusual sight to see Messi sat on the bench. And yet, there he was, for 59 minutes, watching on as the rain just kept pouring down at Espanyol. But, of course, when he entered the fray on Sunday he was always going to make an impact and that he did when he assisted Pique’s late equaliser with his 10th assist of the season to help Barca maintain their 22-match league unbeaten streak.

A little bit of a rest, as Valverde has hinted at in recent weeks, should mean the 30-year-old club legend is more than ready for Thursday evening. It was a wise decision, given he had played a full part in Barca’s past six matches. In fact, with two low-key La Liga matches coming up: Getafe at home on Sunday (February 11) and Eibar away the following Saturday (February 17), Messi will definitely get 90 minutes here and could be spared for one of those two matches with a firm eye on Chelsea in less than a couple of weeks time.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 04: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona fights for the ball with Victor Sanchez (C) and Sergi Darder (L) of RCD Espanyol during the La Liga match between Espanyol and Barcelona at RCDE Stadium on February 4, 2018 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi should be fresh after a rare bit of rest.

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