Results have masked Barcelona’s need for Coutinho

Barcelona travel to Real Madrid for Saturday’s Clasico with an 11-point advantage in the La Liga table, but with many around the club still feeling they must move seriously to sign Liverpool schemer Philippe Coutinho as soon as next month regardless of the result at the Bernabeu.
Results have masked Barcelona’s need for Coutinho

Barca are very likely to spend in January’s transfer window, with cash on hand after the world record €222m fee received last summer from Neymar’s shock exit for Paris Saint Germain.

While about half was quickly spent on young winger Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund, the France international was almost immediately injured and has not played since.

The remainder is still in the Camp Nou coffers, after an effort to release Coutinho from Liverpool last August was thwarted at the last by Reds manager Jurgen Klopp and the Anfield board, despite the player himself trying to force through the move. The Brazil international has rarely been out of the Catalan press in the months since, and few in Catalonia doubt he will try again to make the move happen as soon as possible.

Barca chief executive Oscar Grau said publicly in October, as he announced record club revenues of €897m, that there was money available for the winter window.

“We’re prepared to sign Coutinho or any other player in January, even if there aren’t any sales,” Grau said then. “The club is in a very solvent, positive position. We want our team to be as competitive as possible.”

That kept speculation bubbling through the autumn, even as incoming coach Ernesto Valverde very calmly and capably went about building a new-look Barca XI, albeit one still very reliant on superstar Lionel Messi for both goals and creativity.

Long-serving playmaker Andres Iniesta has completed the 90 minutes just once all season, as Valverde looks to manage long-running hamstring issues and keep the 33-year-old as fresh as possible.

This has allowedsummer signing Paulinho to play a more significant role than expected, with the former China-based midfielder having provided six goals as well as more ballast in central areas.

Through the autumn Barca have relied heavily on Messi, but also on outstanding goalkeeper Marc Andre Ter Stegen and central defender Samuel Umtiti, until the latter was injured earlier this month. They have ridden their luck at times, and results have generally been more impressive than performances.

Former Athletic Bilbao coach Valverde’s pragmatism in tactics and selection, and his ability to calmly deal with issues such as Catalan nationalist protests, has also been vital. Given the context it is almost incredible his team are unbeaten since the season-opening Supercopas, and have built such an advantage over a Madrid team which last summer seemed set for a period of total domination.

However purists around the Camp Nou, and not only purists, worry that Iniesta’s wane has hurt the flow of Barca’s traditional possession-based game. They have also not forgotten how Madrid’s Luka Modric and Toni Kroos won the possession stakes for the first time in almost a decade during August’s not quite fully competitive Clasicos. The hope is that Coutinho, or at a stretch Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil, could arrive in January and provide some extra creativity on the ball, especially on days when Messi is either unavailable or uninspired.

Another option mentioned more in recent days has been Atletico Madrid attacker Antoine Griezmann, who is probably the answer to a different question, but who Barca director Guillermo Amor more or less admitted was a target last weekend. Whatever happens on Saturday, Barca’s board are set to spend in January, and the club’s current players seem just as keen to get some fresh blood in as quickly as possible.

“Both Griezmann and Coutinho are elite players that are playing at the top level,” Luis Suarez said earlier this week.

“They are where they are for a reason. They’re both young and have long careers ahead of them. And Barca always want the best players.”

Yesterday’s cover of local paper Sport reported a meeting between Coutinho’s agents and Barca directors, including details such as €12m a year contract having been finalised. But it claimed Liverpool were still holding out for €150m, which was just too much for Barca’s much-criticised president Josep Maria Bartomeu to countenance.

The result on Saturday at the Bernabeu, and particularly the style in which Barca’s midfield go about their job, may determine whether Bartomeu will go that little bit further to get the deal done this time.

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