Dembele and Barca look to maintain La Liga surge against Bilbao
Two hundred days after becoming Barcelona’s most expensive signing, Ousmane Dembele finally scored his first goal for the club against Chelsea in the Champions League.
Now, the 20-year-old will be hoping to be given the chance to sustain his momentum as Barca turn their attention back to La Liga and the visit of Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Dembele cost the Catalan club 105 million euros ($124 million) last summer and that figure could swell to 150 million if a number of performance-related bonuses are triggered.
But the former Borussia Dortmund forward has struggled to live up to the hype in his debut season in Spain.
Dembele suffered a hamstring injury on his first league start and did not play again for his new team until January, by which time Barca were flying in La Liga and about to sign another attacking talent in Philippe Coutinho.
Coutinho’s arrival has made the competition even fiercer for the final spot up front alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez but, with the Brazilian ineligible against Chelsea and Paulinho left on the bench, Dembele took his chance.
A superb finish into the top corner put Barca two up in the first half and Dembele’s provider, Lionel Messi, showed his delight by leaping onto his team-mate and slapping his chest.
As French compatriot Samuel Umtiti joined the celebrations with a synchronised jump-bump, the relief was palpable that Dembele’s Barca career had finally gained lift-off.
“It’s about acclimatisation,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “He has not been harmed by it. There was the injury, which was a set-back, and coming from another type of football.
“Otherwise, he has to get used to the ways in which we move, either when attacking with possession, or defending as a team with high pressure.
“When we play with a very strong team like today, we sacrifice and play together, he has enjoyed it. He is a very young player with a great future ahead.”
Valverde’s analysis was a clear indication that Dembele still has work to do and it may be he finds himself rotated out of the starting line-up this weekend.
Simeone still hopeful
Certainly, Barca cannot afford to dwell on their 3-0 win over Chelsea, with Atletico Madrid eager to cut an eight-point gap at the top of the table.
Bilbao, however, are stranded in 12th, too far from either the relegation or European spots and with one day less to rest following their Europa League second leg against Marseille on Thursday.
Atletico, meanwhile, visit Villarreal on Sunday as Diego Simeone’s side desperately look to tug Barca back into a title race.
“My hope is that we arrive in the last five matches still in with a chance,” Simeone said after last weekend’s win over Celta Vigo.
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has also refused to discount a comeback, but making up 15 points on Barcelona in their ten remaining games seems unlikely.
Instead, Real can hold off Valencia to finish third while gaining rhythm ahead of their Champions League quarter-final in three weeks.
Gareth Bale will be hoping to win back his place in Zidane’s best team by then after the Welshman was left out of the starting line-up for both last 16 legs against Paris Saint-Germain.
Real are at home on Sunday to Girona, who are seventh and still very much in contention for a Europa League spot in what is the club’s debut season in the top flight.
“Going to the Bernabeu and not having to feel pressure about anything is not a privilege but an opportunity,” Girona coach Jordi Guerrero said. “We have to try to step forward and achieve our dream.”
Elsewhere, fourth-placed Valencia are at home to Alaves on Saturday and fifth-placed Sevilla travel to Leganes on Sunday.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Levante v Eibar (2000)
Deportivo La Coruna v Las Palmas (1200), Valencia v Alaves (1515), Real Sociedad v Getafe (1730), Real Betis v Espanyol (1945)
Leganes v Sevilla (1100), Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao (1515), Villarreal v Atletico Madrid (1730), Celta Vigo v Malaga (1730), Real Madrid v Girona (1945)
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