Barcelona bounce back from Roma disappointment as Philippe Coutinho shines
BARCELONA, Spain -- Three quick thoughts from Camp Nou on Barcelona's 2-1 win over Valencia in La Liga.
1. Barca bounce back... kind of
Barcelona recovered from their Champions League collapse in Rome by beating Valencia to take a huge step towards their seventh league title in 10 years.
Goals from Luis Suarez and Samuel Umtiti saw Ernesto Valverde's side extend their unbeaten La Liga run to 39 games, setting a new league record for consecutive matches without defeat, as they moved 14 points clear of Atletico Madrid at the top of the table.
Valencia replied late on, Dani Parejo's penalty squeezing under Marc-Andre ter Stegen after substitute Ousmane Dembele had fouled Jose Luis Gaya.
While, on the face of it, the result starts the healing process from a third-straight quarterfinal exit in Europe, the performance did little to suggest that Barca have managed to get over surrendering a three-goal lead in Italy.
The dangerous Goncalo Guedes had the game's first real chance in front of a flat -- and soaking wet -- Camp Nou crowd. The Portugal winger's curling shot tipped around the post by Ter Stegen.
Barca did grow into the game, albeit in a laboured manner. Jordi Alba saw a shot saved by Neto before a wonderfully subtle pass from Philippe Coutinho set Suarez up for the opener.
Guedes had two more chances as he looked to single-handedly drag Valencia back into the game, one saved by Ter Stegen and the other which deflected wide. The German goalkeeper then had to make up for his own mistake, tipping Rodrigo's strike onto the bar after giving the ball away.
Pique then gifted another chance to Rodrigo. The result was the same: a Ter Stegen save.
Valencia's luck didn't change after the break, either. This time an Umtiti error handed Rodrigo a third opening. This time he did beat Ter Stegen but he didn't beat Pique, the Barca defender sliding back to clear the ball off the line. Moments later, Umtiti headed in a Coutinho corner and Barca could relax at 2-0.
Chances came and went for both sides as the game opened up. Coutinho and Lionel Messi both went close for Barca before Valencia pulled one back in the final five minutes from the penalty spot.
Barca's players hung around in the centre circle at full time, applauding the supporters that had stayed until the end. It felt like an apology for what happened in Rome more than anything. Winning La Liga and the Copa del Rey -- they face Sevilla in the final next weekend -- will be the best way to really say sorry.
2. Coutinho up, Dembele down
Barcelona's response to their Champions League exit was led by a man who wasn't able to help them in Rome: Coutinho. The Brazilian, cup tied for that tricky night at the Stadio Olimpico, returned to the side against Valencia and produced, perhaps, his best performance since he landed in Spain in January.
A disguised pass from the edge of the box brilliantly set up Suarez for the opener and his corner was headed home by Umtiti after the break. Moments after that, he almost added the third himself, an angled strike from the corner of the box that just screeched wide.
Defeat to Roma has created plenty of debate in Catalonia. Once again, the almost annual talk of the end of an era has been present. Pique, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta (who was brilliant here) and Messi remain the spine of the team but in Coutinho's performance there were shoots of encouragement for the future.
Another case is Ousmane Dembele. The France international is still just 20 and has had terrible luck with injuries, but it's become clear that Valverde still doesn't trust him defensively and he was left on the bench against Valencia, as he was in Rome, coming on for a 10-minute cameo at the end.
His confidence and standing under Valverde took a further hit here, with the Frenchman conceding the penalty late which threw Valencia a lifeline.
3. Valencia denied by Ter Stegen but on track for top four
Valencia's nine-game unbeaten run came to an end at Camp Nou but coach Marcelino will not be too disappointed with what he witnessed. Only a string of first-half saves from Ter Stegen and Pique's goal-line clearance prevented them from returning home with a result they have grounds to argue they deserved.
It's not a defeat which is likely to derail their season, though. A run of five straight wins saw them hop ahead of Real Madrid in third place going into this weekend's games. They're 13 points clear of fifth-placed Real Betis with just 18 points to play for. They will be back in the Champions League next season.
They will hope Guedes, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, sticks around for the journey. The Portuguese winger is their top man and he had a hat trick of chances in the first half. He was twice foiled by Ter Stegen before his third shot, which looked destined for the bottom corner, was deflected wide.
He's not their only threat, though. Dani Parejo and Geoffrey Kondogbia have formed a fruitful partnership in midfield and Santi Mina and Rodrigo are developing into a dangerous duo in attack. The latter had one shot impossibly tipped onto the bar by Ter Stegen and another cleared off the line by Pique.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.