Coutinho can play with Iniesta – Barcelona boss

Ernesto Valverde says Philippe Coutinho and Andres Iniesta can play alongside each other ahead of what could be the Brazilian’s full debut against Alaves on Sunday.

Coutinho, 25, came off the bench after recovering from a thigh injury to earn his first minutes as a Barca player during Thursday’s win over Espanyol.

The €160 million signing was introduced in place of Iniesta for the final 20 minutes and made a good first impression as Barca reached the Copa del Rey semifinal.

Valverde says the former Liverpool playmaker could now be handed his first start this weekend but insisted it will not be a case of choosing between Coutinho and Iniesta from now on.

“Coutinho could start [against Alaves], yes,” Valverde said in a news conference. “He came through his debut the other day, so he’s available. We will see…

“He has to get used to what his teammates have been doing this season. He will have defensive duties, of course, even though he has more of an attacking profile than Iniesta. They’re different players, but they can complement each other perfectly on the pitch.

“Iniesta’s more of a midfielder. Coutinho is more offensive, he takes on shots from distance and he can play wide or through the middle… but he also has to conform to what we do.”

Coutinho and summer signing Ousmane Dembele both arrived on the back of Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain in August.

Injuries have prevented Dembele getting going so far — he’s currently out with a hamstring strain — and Coutinho has only just joined, but Barca haven’t struggled since losing Neymar, building an 11-point lead at the top of La Liga.

“I don’t know how my team would play with Neymar,” Valverde said when asked if the Brazilian’s departure had allowed him to create a more balanced side.

“The squad would be different. It’s true that the first thought was we would struggle in attack, that’s always the case when a team loses a player like Neymar.

“But we’re still scoring goals, we have a structure which helps defensively…. Our style is to attack and to be organised so that our opponents don’t score.”

Despite only leaving Camp Nou six months ago, Neymar’s time in France has been fraught with rumours that he could return to Spain with Real Madrid.

“I don’t know what could happen,” Valverde said when asked if he could imagine Neymar at Madrid. “If there’s a place where strange things can happen, then it’s football. But it doesn’t worry me. I’m thinking about what I have here.”

As well as Coutinho, Valverde could hand a full debut to defender Yerry Mina on Sunday.

However, while suggesting there will be some changes, he was keen to stress that Barcelona are not taking their lead in La Liga for granted.

“There could be some rotating, but not thinking about the lead we have in the league,” the coach added. “What’s in our interest against Alaves is to pick the best team to win — there’s no need to take risks

“We can’t look around at each other and tell ourselves that everything is going well. We’ve built a gap but everything can change. There are still a lot of games to be played. You can’t be affected by the excessively optimistic [predictions] that everything is won in February.”

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