Philippe Coutinho was the headline news on a wet Catalan holiday weekend which reduced the Camp Nou crowd to 56,380, but on the pitch it was business as usual as Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez scored a goal each in a 3-0 win.
Messi opened the scoring after 12 minutes, volleying home a Jordi Alba cross in his 400th league game. Suarez’s goal, a half volley downwards, came from a Sergi Roberto cross after 38 minutes. Messi set up Paulinho for the third, cutting the ball back in time added on, to finish the game.
It was also more of the same at the back as Roberto was again excellent and Andre Ter Stegen kept another clean sheet. Barca’s most venerated names make the headlines but Ter Stegen and Roberto have been among their best performers this season.
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Roberto, 25 and the same age as Coutinho, is a product of the Masia youth system and set up another goal for his seventh assist of the season – and his third successive assist in league matches.
Roberto has played 174 times for Barca and was highly rated by former manager Luis Enrique, yet only become a true mainstay in the past two seasons and especially this term as he’s started all but two league games which he’s been fit to play.
He plays at right-back, the preferred option over Nelson Semedo, who signed from Benfica for €30 million (Dh132.6m) at the start of the season.
Roberto, famed for his versatility, can play right midfield, right wing, defensive midfield and as a central midfielder, but it is as a right back that he has settled –though any full-back at Barcelona is expected to get forward and it explains his high number of assists.
The unassuming Roberto, from the small Catalan city of Reus, is greatly appreciated by the Camp Nou crowd, but with a buy out of only €40m and a contract which runs out in 2019, Barca shouldn’t just focus their attention on foreign star names.
Roberto was applauded off with his name sung after 86 minutes, replaced by Jose Arnaiz, the 22-year-old who has shown so much promise in the Copa del Rey.
This Barca team is a winning machine and remains unbeaten a game off the halfway point of the season, but it is still not fully settled. Ousame Dembele, the club’s record signing before Coutinho, is back from four and a half months out injured and played 67 minutes before also being applauded off. He will be given time to establish himself alongside Messi and Suarez.
Coutinho needs to fit in too, but his talents will be appreciated given so many of the players are over the age of 30. They were, as expected, too strong for a Levante side who are struggling.
Though they won the second division with ease at the first attempt after relegation last season, and started this one well without a defeat in their first five games, they have won only one of the subsequent 13 matches.
The Valencian side, who held Real Madrid in the Bernabeu in their third league game, had found the net only once on their previous five games and while they did have attacks at Camp Nou, they start 2018 in a relegation battle. The optimism of their promotion, which resulted in record season ticket sales and crowds touching 20,000, has started to deflate.
None of that will concern Barcelona, who will hope to be champions by the time they visit Levante for their final away game of the season in May. They are in a formidable position and unbeaten after 18 games and now boosted by the arrival of Coutinho and the return of Dembele.