Messi gets a key ally in Dembele

AP
LIONEL Messi may have gained an important ally at Barcelona.
AP
Reuters

Forward Lionel Messi celebrates scoring Barcelona’s third goal against Chelsea during their UEFA Champions League last 16, second leg at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on Wednesday. Barcelona won 3-0 to advance 4-1 on aggregate. In the day’s other UCL match, Bayern Munich beat Besiktas 3-1 in Istanbul, Turkey, to go through to the quarterfinals 8-1 on aggregate. 

LIONEL Messi may have gained an important ally at Barcelona.

Ousmane Dembele, who arrived at the beginning of the season under high expectations as Neymar’s replacement, is finally starting to show his worth, becoming an important piece for the Messi-led Barcelona attack.

Dembele scored a goal in Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday, completing a superb play by Messi with a shot into the top corner from inside the area. Messi scored the other two goals, helping the hosts secure a 4-1 aggregate win and reach the quarterfinals for the 11th straight time.

Dembele’s goal was his first in 12 appearances since arriving from Borussia Dortmund in a deal that could potentially reach 150 million euros (US$185 million).

The France forward also helped in defense, hustling back and making a clean tackle on Marcos Alonso as the Chelsea player prepared to take a shot from close range early in the second half.

“He worked a lot in attack and made a crucial defensively play,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “He took a step forward.”

Dembele was touted as a substitute for Neymar after the Brazilian left for Paris Saint-Germain, but he hadn’t produced much until now, in part because of a series of injuries. His good display on Wednesday came nearly six months after he ruptured a thigh tendon and had to be sidelined for more than three months.

He had played only a few matches since fully recovering from his tendon surgery when he hurt his hamstring and was out again for nearly a month.

“We hope he keeps taking advantage of the opportunities that he gets,” Valverde said. “He had the injuries, and was coming from a different team and a different type of soccer. He has to adapt to how we play in attack and defense.”

His performance on Wednesday followed another good showing in the team’s 2-0 win over Malaga in the Spanish league last weekend.

Valverde decided to start the match with Dembele instead of midfielder Paulinho to try to open up the Chelsea defense with a player on the flank.

“I’m lucky to be able to count on two players with different characteristics,” Valverde said.

Another player who regained some confidence on Wednesday was midfielder Andre Gomes, who entered the match in the second half. He was cheered by most of the crowd at Camp Nou in stark contrast to the loud jeers he had been hearing from the stands following lackluster performances since arriving at the club.

He was applauded nearly every time he touched the ball and had his name chanted by the fans.

The change in the crowd’s attitude came after Gomes gave an interview to local magazine Panenka opening up about his struggles, saying he felt ashamed of leaving his home and facing Barcelona fans on the streets.

“Thanks a lot, fans,” Gomes said on Twitter after the match. “I have no words.”

Gomes may get more chances to play because midfielder Sergio Busquets will be out for about three weeks after fracturing a bone in his right foot against Chelsea. He was substituted by Gomes in the 61st minute.

“I’m really glad for Dembele’s goal and for the crowd’s reaction toward Gomes,” Barcelona midfielder Sergi Roberto said. “That’s very positive for them.”

Messi, meanwhile, joined Cristiano Ronaldo in the UCL’s 100-goal club with his two goals on Wednesday.

Ronaldo, with 117 goals, is the only other player to reach the century-mark in Europe’s elite club competition. Messi reached his 100th goal in 123 matches, while the Real Madrid star needed 144 games.

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