Other than Messi being Messi, what has helped Barcelona stabilize after a rocky period in autumn?
There was a time early on where Barça failed to win four games in a row in the league in late September-early October, but looking back, I think it was just a blip, really. I mean, let’s not forget the 5-1 win over Real Madrid was in late October. The team fully adjusting into the 4-3-3 helped, getting Lionel Messi back from injury of course helped, and the adaptation of Clément Lenglet and Arthur were key points. Another was Ousmane Dembélé and Luis Suárez getting into better form.
Philippe Coutinho may have scored Tuesday, but do you see him playing a part in Saturday’s game? What is your view of his situation in general?
He is a slight favorite to start. Dembélé is still injured. Malcom is an option, and he’s in good form, but Valverde doesn’t seem to trust him that strongly. Another possibility is Sergi Roberto.
Regardless, I see Coutinho playing a part off the bench if nothing else. I thought he was okay against Villarreal — not really because of the goal, but in general he seemed to have improved a little. He’s still miles away from vintage Coutinho, but he can still do damage.
Ernesto Valverde has been a somewhat divisive figure among the Barcelona faithful during his two seasons in charge. What do you feel is the current consensus regarding the job he’s doing?
Mundo Deportivo polled the socis a few weeks back and they gave him something like an average rating of 7. On the internet, the average rating might be a bit lower, like 5 or 6.
He is very divisive, and it’s clear why. On the one hand, you have two domestic trophies last year and the team looking like a solid bet to win them again this season. On the other you have the meltdown against AS Roma last season, which was an unacceptable moment. The question is, was that a fluke? Or is it something about how he is as a coach that lead to that situation? I think we’re going to get the answer this season.
It’s hard to guarantee a UEFA Champions League win — a lot can go wrong unexpectedly — but I think most people expect a strong run. Another Roma-like embarrassment would really make his support drop off.
Suárez may be 32 now, but he remains very important and productive. Do you think there should be an urgency to replace him?
A replacement should be identified now, preferably one on the cusp of becoming great, as a top striker is going to cost €100 million, easily. Suárez still looks like he can start for one more season, but then who knows?
Barça have been looking for his heir for a while — there was Paco Alcácer, there was Munir, now there really isn’t anyone. That’s a position to address in the summer, and one reason why Barcelona won’t fully let go of the possibility of signing Antoine Griezmann. However, Griezmann is the finished article and would cost quite a huge sum, so perhaps they’re gonna go for someone like Luka Jović, younger and a bit cheaper.
What do you expect from Saturday’s match — what are your keys to a win?
Atlético Madrid are in strong form in the last two matches, and they don’t have the Champions League anymore, which I think is a big advantage. Barcelona are gearing up to play Manchester United just a few days after and I think it’s hard not to keep an eye on that match during this one, which complicates things. This is Atlético’s final, their huge moment, and it’s not quite that for Barcelona. That could be really tricky.
The flipside is I think Barça will look a lot better with Gerard Piqué back in the team, plus Ivan Rakitić and Messi from the start, compared to that 4-4 draw with Villarreal.
Got a scoreline prediction for us?
I think the fact that it’s at Camp Nou evens the odds, because at the Wanda Metropolitano, I’d picture Atlético as the favorites. I’ll say 1-1.