Dembele 'took a step forward' for Barca vs. Malaga - Valverde
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde praised Ousmane Dembele for "taking a step forward" after producing one of his best performances since signing for the club in Saturday's 2-0 win against Malaga.
Dembele joined from Borussia Dortmund last summer for €105 million but the pressure of that price tag and a long-term injury earlier in the season have disrupted his first year in Spain. However,in the absence of Lionel Messi, who was missing due to the birth of his third child, Dembele impressed at La Rosaleda.
Luis Suarez opened the scoring, heading home Jordi Alba's pinpoint cross before Dembele brilliantly set up Philippe Coutinho as Barca recorded a 2-0 win to extend their unbeaten streak in La Liga to 35 games. The France forward grew in confidence from there, causing constant problems for the home side's defence with his pace, trickery and willingness to take things on.
"Dembele's a player that needs time, he's young," said Valverde in his post-game news conference. "We're Barca and there's a lot of pressure here, so for that reason there's been a lot of focus on him.
"He's had more success [against Malaga] than on other occasions but the good thing is that he always tries to get at opponents and to dribble. And he can also create, as we saw with the second goal. He took a step forward tonight and he helped us a lot. But there's still a way to go."
The performances of Dembele and Coutinho helped Barca effectively wrap up the three points in the opening half-hour against a Malaga side who were also reduced to 10 men before half-time.
Despite their one-man advantage, though, Barca didn't add to their tally after the break and Valverde conceded that thoughts had turned to Wednesday's crucial Champions League game against Chelsea.
"When you play against the team at the bottom of the league, people think you have already won," said the coach. "But it's not like that. So I am happy with the three points above all.
"Everything happened in the first half. We scored the two goals, we could have scored more and they have had the red card for Samuel [Garcia]. The second half was different against a rival who sat deeper. You begin to think about the game on Wednesday.
"Chelsea will be a tough match, just like the first leg. They're a strong side, they defend together. We're hopeful but everything is still to be decided."
Barca will benefit from a fresh Messi against the Premier League champions at Camp Nou. The Argentina international pulled out of the trip to Malaga on the morning after the game after his wife, Antonela Roccuzzo, gave birth to their third son.
Full-backs Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto were both unable to finish the game in Andalusia, with Valverde confirming they were both withdrawn late on due to knocks they'd picked up in the first half. Yet both should be fine for the Chelsea game, with Barca leaving it late before taking a decision on Andres Iniesta's fitness. Nelson Semedo and Denis Suarez are both sidelined.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.