SUNDAY TIMES WEB DESK: Barcelona will hope to reassert their authority in the title race on Saturday after a stuttering spell has given Real Madrid fresh hope in La Liga.
When Ousmane Dembele injured his ankle in January, the door was open for Philippe Coutinho to make his mark at Barca. Instead, he has delivered a series of jaded performances that have left some even questioning his long-term future.
With Dembele now fit again, it remains to be seen whether the Brazilian starts on Saturday against Real Valladolid. Ernesto Valverde has said he appreciates that Coutinho is a player that takes risks but there has been a lack of confidence and clarity in his play that suggests he is still not sure what his job is.
Lionel Messi came off the bench against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey and then started in the draw at home to Athletic Bilbao but in neither game was he fully fit.
A clear week may have given Messi time to shake off his niggling thigh strain but Valverde has another decision to make this weekend, particularly with the first leg against Lyon in the Champions League to come on Tuesday.
Valverde was blamed for burning out key players last season, to the detriment of their chances in Europe. But three draws in a row, and Real’s resurgence, means he cannot let the momentum drain further.
He showed how good he can be,” said Ajax coach Erik Ten Hag, after Vinicius Junior had just terrorised his defence in Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid.
Vinicius’ performances have tended to follow a similar pattern, with his tender age often showing itself in erratic decision-making and over-eagness. But scattered in between are the electric moments that have made the striker one of the first names on the teamsheet in recent weeks.
At some point, Santiago Solari may feel the 18-year-old needs a break in this, his debut season. Even so, his form seems too good to interrupt, even if there is plenty of depth now that Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio are back from injury, not to mention Lucas Vazquez, who has been a staple under Solari. Madrid have options, just when they need them.