Philippe Coutinho conundrum as Barcelona roar into Champions League semi-finals

Andy West 01:43 17/04/2019
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Barcelona made it through to the Champions League semi-final for the first time since winning the trophy in 2015 with a 3-0 second leg victory over Manchester United, advancing 4-0 on aggregate.

United will go away wondering what might have been after making a great start and twice coming close to taking the lead, but in the end they were comprehensively outplayed by Barca over the two legs.

Lionel Messi delivered another masterclass to propel his team into the last four, and the Catalan club must be confident about their chances of going all the way.

Let’s look back on all the key action from a topsy-turvy nighty at the Camp Nou.

VALVERDE OPTS FOR CONTROL…AND GETS IT, BELATEDLY

The first tactical blow was struck before kick-off when Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde opted to field Philippe Coutinho on the left wing and Sergi Roberto at the right, with Ousmane Dembele and Nelson Semedo restricted to the bench.

In doing so, Valverde was probably expecting a closely contested and cagey opening half, with United getting plenty of men behind the ball, and therefore expecting the more careful skills of Coutinho and Roberto to provide a greater sense of control – with the option of introducing Dembele, in particular, if the game opened up in the second half as United upped their efforts for a goal.

If that was the expectation, though, the reality was very different because United’s start was anything but cagey, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men flying out of the traps with crisp, confident and incisive passing which could have yielded two goals in the first three minutes.

Firstly, Marcus Rashford – lining up on the right with Jesse Lingard surprisingly playing through the middle – raced clear to shoot against the crossbar after 35 seconds, before Scott McTominay failed to control when wide open inside the penalty area.

Barca’s start to the game was woeful and they looked dazed for the opening ten minutes…but then a familiar face stepped up to restore the anticipated state of affairs and the rest of the game was a breeze.

MESSI DOES IT AGAIN

Messi

United’s fine early work was undone with a flash of genius from Lionel Messi, who opened the scoring after 15 minutes to give his side total command of the tie: he took advantage of some sloppy work from Ashley Young to win the ball on the right corner of the box, beat Fred with a sublime nutmeg and cut inside to unleash a brilliant strike into the far corner.

Messi pounced again minutes later, although his second strike owed a lot to a terrible error from United keeper David De Gea, who somehow allowed Messi’s half-hit right-footed strike from the edge of the box to squirm through his grasp and roll apologetically over the line.

Having effectively settled the contest, Messi proceeded to torment the visiting defence with a motivated and high-tempo display, with a particular highlight coming just before half-time when he twisted Phil Jones inside-out with a sensational dribble which nearly led to a goal for Roberto.

This must have been the hardest he was worked off the ball in a long time, giving weight to the idea that he is reserving his energies for the competition Barca crave more than any other. With Messi in this mood, they must be favourites.

COUTINHO STATES HIS CASE

Valverde’s decision to start with Coutinho ahead of Dembele will have been badly received by many Barca supporters considering the Brazilian’s ineffectual form during the majority of the campaign, but he responded with an excellent performance capped by a magnificent third goal, thundered into the top right corner from long range.

There has never been any doubt over Coutinho’s talent, but the question of where he fits into the team tactically has been less clear. On this occasion, though, he looked perfectly comfortable on the left of the front three, linking well with Jordi Alba on the overlap and regularly coming inside to team up with Messi and midfield general Arthur.

With the end product of his outstanding goal added in, this was undoubtedly one of Coutinho’s best performances in a Barca shirt and it gives Valverde an interesting and welcome dilemma ahead of the semi-finals.

Dembele is regaining full fitness and was in the team on merit before getting injured, but Coutinho playing like this is also well worth a start – and if Liverpool also advance, he will naturally be desperate to shine against his former club.

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