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Coutinho’s Incredible, Amazing, Magical Presence Inspires Barcelona To Win Over Rival In Debut

Some players just have an aura about them, a mystique that lifts the play of everyone around them, whether or not they’re on the pitch. The second-most expensive footballer of all time has to fit that bill, probably. How else do you explain Barcelona defeating Espanyol 2-0 to advance 2-1 on aggregate in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey on Thursday at the Camp Nou?

Barcelona’s first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals against Espanyol was forgettable, aside from one moment of magic from Sergio Busquets. Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Espanyol won 1-0. The club was missing something. That something was Philippe Coutinho on the bench. 

Fortunately for these struggling Catalans, who barely beat Real Betis 5-0 at the weekend to go a mere 19 points ahead of archrival Real Madrid, Coutinho came to the rescue on Thursday. The announcement the Little Magician would be on the bench for the first time in the famous Blaugrana blue and red was the boost Messi, Busquets and Luis Suarez needed to find the strength to see off Espanyol. 

With Coutinho watching and waiting, Suarez and Messi both scored within the opening 25 minutes, reversing the aggregate advantage into the home side’s favor. With a new signing eager to replace him on the field, Andres Iniesta put in an inspired defensive shift to maintain that delicate lead. Coutinho didn’t even need to come onto the field to inspire his side to victory, though the Coutinho Barcelona debut eventually happened in the 68th minute. 

Philippe Coutinho Barcelona debut

Coutinho warming up for his Barcelona debut. Photo: @FCBarcelona | Twitter

Before the match, the club said farewell to Javier Mascherano, whose impending move to anywhere-but-Barca paved the way for Coutinho to sit on the bench in his No. 14 jersey. 

It wasn’t long later that Suarez was heading the ball into the back of the net, set up expertly by Aleix Vidal to open the scoring in the ninth minute. 

Messi gave Barcelona the lead in the two legs in the 25th minute. The Argentine showed some impressive determination to nip the ball away from Espanyol and fire a shot that took a deflection on the way into the back of the net. The deflection was fortunate, but you don’t get fortunate if you don’t put a shot on target

The strike was the 4,000th goal for Barca at Camp Nou.

Then, in the second half, came the moment everyone in the stadium was waiting for: Barcelona brought on its over-priced Brazilian star midfielder.

Not long later, Ernesto Valverde decided his nearly-$200 million toy should do more than inspire from the bench and threw Coutinho on for the fun of it, though he knew the match was already won just with the Brazillian’s presence in the Barca kit. 

A moment to savor, I suppose, for Barcelona fans, who haven’t seen many big-name Brazilians come through their ranks. Aside from, you know, Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano, Dani Alves and Neymar, to name a few. 

Moments after coming on, Coutinho was on the receiving end of a thumping tackle from Espanyol’s Victor Sanchez just outside the box. Perhaps nervous playing so close to the legend that is Coutinho, Messi skied the ensuing free kick well over the crossbar. Such is Coutinho’s aura that when he left the substitute’s bench to enter the field, the coaching staff lost its nerve, with Barca goalkeeper coach José Ramón de la Fuente being sent off by the referee late in the match. 

So heavy was Coutinho’s influence that in the 81st minute Barcelona survived Jordi Alba appearing to drag down Espanyol’s Gerard Moreno in the box. Instead of showing red to the Barca left back, the referee waved play on, afraid to draw the ire of Supreme Leader Coutinho. 

The Coutinho Barcelona debut was denied an assist when Suarez had a near-point-blank shot saved by Pau Lopez, who then got up to deny Ivan Rakitic with a superb double save. Barcelona nearly added to its lead when Rakitic launched a ball onto the head of Messi, but seeing as it wasn’t his left foot, Messi put the shot off the post. Our guess is he didn't want to upstage the man who actually sparked Barcelona to victory. 

Nonetheless, Coutinho had already done the damage, his presence on the bench inspiring his teammates to a win over Espanyol. How Barcelona ever won a match before he arrived at the club is beyond me. 

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