BARCELONA, Spain — Ernesto Valverde hopes the goal Philippe Coutinho scored against Manchester United will feed his confidence ahead of a reunion with Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals.
Coutinho, 26, has endured a difficult second season at Barcelona. The Brazilian has been in and out of Valverde’s side and has been criticised by supporters and the local media for his performances when he has played.
An injury to Ousmane Dembele has allowed him a run in the team recently, though, and he responded with a wonder strike from 25 yards against United as Barca reached a European semifinal for the first time since 2015.
They will face Coutinho’s former club Liverpool in the last four, with the first leg at Camp Nou on May 1 and the return game at Anfield six days later.
“Players feed off confidence in the same way everyone else does and when they get things right, when they play well, that confidence grows quickly,” Valverde said in a news conference on Friday.
“They then have confidence which maybe at other moments [in the season] they didn’t have. We’re all exposed to criticism and praise continuously [at Barcelona] and Coutinho’s the same as everyone else.”
Coutinho, who has now scored 11 goals in all competitions this season, has clearly been affected by the criticism. After scoring in midweek, he cupped his hands to his ears in frustration in front of the home end.
The goal celebration was labelled “disrespectful” towards the supporters by Catalan newspaper Diario Sport but Valverde defended his player.
“It’s true he made a gesture [to the fans] when he scored, but it surprises me that we’re talking about that more than a great goal in a Champions League quarterfinal,” the coach added.
“[The celebration] didn’t seem anything special to me or a lack of respect towards anyone. We give too much importance to these things.
“It’s normal that he’s been criticised because we’re at a club where the demands are so high. There are always different spells during a season, but the other day he played really well, scored a great goal and that’s what I took from the game.”
Before facing Liverpool, Barca have three league games in a week, starting at home to Real Sociedad on Saturday. They then travel to Alaves before hosting Levante next weekend. Three wins would seal an eighth league title in 11 years with three games to spare.
“We would love to get nine points and mathematically wrap up the championship,” Valverde said. “We’re getting closer to our goals but you can’t mess up now.
“The dressing room is very aware of the moment of the season we’re in. It’s not like in November, when maybe a Champions League game takes all the focus. We’re playing for La Liga and the game against La Real’s another important one. We all know that and so do our supporters.”
Barca have no major injury concerns ahead of the Basque side’s visit. Samuel Umtiti missed training earlier in the week but Valverde played down suggestions the defender’s knee injury has flared up again.”