Football

Dembele shines in Messi's absence

French forward, 20, earns praises from coach Valverde, Coutinho and Rakitic

Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele earned the praise of coach Ernesto Valverde and his teammates after making the most of Lionel Messi's absence with an inspired performance in their 2-0 win at basement club Malaga yesterday morning (Singapore time).

The 20-year-old Frenchman has largely flattered to deceive since signing for Barca from Borussia Dortmund for an eye-watering 105 million euros (S$170 million) last August, despite having played less than two seasons as a professional.

He has received criticism from the Spanish media, who have questioned whether he has the mentality to succeed at Barca, but he responded with a brilliant display against Malaga after Messi missed the trip to attend the birth of his third son.

CONSTANT THREAT

Dembele was a constant threat to Malaga down the right and he set up Philippe Coutinho's sumptuous second goal, toying with a defender before laying the ball on for the Brazilian to score with a backheel.

Luis Suarez had given them the lead after heading home a looping cross from Jordi Alba in the 15th minute.

The 2-0 win maintained the leaders' unbeaten run in the league. They are 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid, who hosted Celta Vigo late last night.

"Dembele is a brilliant player and today he demonstrated that," Coutinho said.

"The move was perfect."

Dembele was Barca's record signing when he arrived and was tasked with filling the shoes of the departed Neymar.

He had to contend with four months on the sidelines after rupturing his hamstring in his first Liga start against Getafe in September and had another injury setback in January which forced him out for another four weeks.

Dembele returned to the side last month, but the arrival of Coutinho, who eclipsed him as the team's most expensive signing at 160m euros, meant more competition for places and the youngster was an unused substitute in the Champions League last-16, first leg at Chelsea and the title showdown against Atletico.

"Today, things went his way more than in other games but the good thing about him is that he always wants to take on opponents," said Barca coach Valverde.

"He tries to dribble and he also gives us an extra edge such as with the second goal today due to his ability to cut inside and give assists."

Midfielder Ivan Rakitic said Dembele had the backing of the squad and that they had never doubted his quality.

"He didn't need a game like this as we all know he is a magnificent player," the Croat said.

"We know he's just come back from a serious injury, especially for the type of player he is. We keep on giving him support, we like him a lot."

Messi will return when Barca host Chelsea in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Thursday morning (Singapore time), but captain Andres Iniesta is still recovering from a hamstring injury.- REUTERS

Football