Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele earned the praise of coach Ernesto Valverde and his team mates after making the most of Lionel Messi’s absence with an inspired performance in his side’s 2-0 win at basement club Malaga on Saturday.
The Frenchman has flattered to deceive on the whole since signing for Barca from Borussia Dortmund for an eye-watering 105 million euros ($129 million) last August despite only having under two seasons under his belt as a professional.
The forward has received criticism from the Spanish media, who have questioned whether he has the mentality to succeed at Barca, but he responded with a brilliant display against Malaga after Messi missed the trip to attend the birth of his son.
Dembele was a constant threat to Malaga down the right-hand side and he set up Philippe Coutinho’s sumptuous second goal, toying with a defender before laying the ball on for the Brazilian to score with a backheel.
“Dembele is a brilliant player and today he demonstrated that,” Coutinho told reporters. “The move was perfect.”
The 20-year-old was Barca’s record signing when he arrived and was tasked with filling the shoes of the recently departed Neymar.
He had to contend with four months on the sidelines after rupturing his hamstring in his first Liga start against Getafe in September and had another injury setback in January which forced him out for another four weeks.
Dembele returned to the side in February but the arrival of Coutinho, who eclipsed him as the team’s most expensive signing, meant more competition for places and the youngster was an unused substitute in the Champions League last-16 first leg at Chelsea and the title showdown against Atletico Madrid.
“Today things went his way more than in other games but the good thing about him is that he always wants to take on opponents,” Barca coach Valverde said.
“He tries to dribble and he also gives us an extra edge such as with the second goal today due to his ability to cut inside and give assists.”
Midfielder Ivan Rakitic said Dembele had the backing of the squad and that they had never doubted his quality.
“He didn’t need a game like this as we all know he is a magnificent player,” the Croatian said.
“We know he’s just come back from an important injury, especially for the type of player he is. We keep on giving him support, we like him a lot.”