Philippe Coutinho the closest thing Barcelona have to a Lionel Messi replacement

Philippe Coutinho has done plenty to make Barcelona supporters forget his huge price tag over the last 10 months. If he rises to the challenge of filling Lionel Messi’s boots in the next three weeks then fans might start remembering it again, but only to consider how it was £142m well spent.

Coutinho turned up last January as the man to replace Andres Iniesta but he has played like a frustrated forward ever since and in recent weeks head coach Ernesto Valverde has recognised that, bringing Brazilian Arthur Melo into midfield to allow Coutinho to play further forward.

No one can replace Messi but if there is anyone who has a similar ability to make diagonal runs at defences and get dangerous shots away from the edge of the area then it is Coutinho.

Philippe Coutinho (right) will be expected to step up in the absence of Lionel Messi (left)

Philippe Coutinho (right) will be expected to step up in the absence of Lionel Messi (left)

Philippe Coutinho (right) will be expected to step up in the absence of Lionel Messi (left)

He can come off the left flank on to his favoured right foot and he even has a similarly excellent relationship with Luis Suarez, which was first developed at Liverpool.

Valverde is still not sure how he will go about combating the absence of Messi in two huge matches against Inter and Real Madrid, but he is convinced Coutinho will now be the focal point for Barcelona’s attacks.

The bigger question for Valverde is who the third man in the Barcelona front three will be, if indeed there is to be a third man.

Dembele did himself no favours with his performance against Sevilla. Suarez was left in despair by his attacking partner as time and again Dembele’s speed got him into good positions only to make the wrong decision.

Messi is expected to miss three to four weeks after fracturing his arm against Sevilla

Messi is expected to miss three to four weeks after fracturing his arm against Sevilla

Messi is expected to miss three to four weeks after fracturing his arm against Sevilla

Coutinho appears to be the closest thing Barcelona have to a direct replacement for Messi

Coutinho appears to be the closest thing Barcelona have to a direct replacement for Messi

Coutinho appears to be the closest thing Barcelona have to a direct replacement for Messi

FIVE POTENTIAL BARCA LINE-UPS

The Rafinha Option (4-3-3)

Ter Stegen;

Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba;

Rakitic, Busquets, Arthur;

Rafinha, Suarez, Coutinho.

The Roberto Option (4-4-2)

Ter Stegen;

Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba;

Roberto, Rakitic, Busquets, Arthur;

Suarez, Coutinho.

The Vidal Option (4-4-2) 

Ter Stegen;

Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba;

Rakitic, Vidal, Busquets, Arthur;

Suarez, Coutinho.

The Dembele Option (4-3-3)

Ter Stegen;

Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba;

Rakitic, Busquets, Arthur;

Dembele, Suarez, Coutinho.

The Malcom Option (4-3-3)

Ter Stegen;

Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba;

Rakitic, Busquets, Arthur;

Malcom, Suarez, Coutinho. 

During one telling attack, Suarez released Dembele with a superb, long, diagonal pass and then sprinted into the area to receive a return ball from him. Suarez strained every sinew to keep up with Dembele and was furious when instead of receiving the cross he had to watch as the Frenchman shot wide.

Valverde was similarly exasperated and is considering three other alternatives for the next two games. Rafinha, Malcom or an extra midfielder.

Rafinha could come in on Wednesday against Inter Milan, the team he played for on loan last season and who he was convinced would buy him last summer. He is happy starting on the right and coming on to his left foot and the desire to sell him has never emanated from Valverde.

In contrast, Valverde has never wanted Malcom, signed for €40m (£35.4m) in the summer from Bordeaux, but now could be the time to make use of him. Like Rafinha, he can start on the right and come inside onto his left foot, which would leave the revitalised Nelson Semedo free to charge down the right flank from full-back.

Ousmane Dembele has proved a frustrating figure on the wing for Barcelona this season

Ousmane Dembele has proved a frustrating figure on the wing for Barcelona this season

Ousmane Dembele has proved a frustrating figure on the wing for Barcelona this season

Rafinha is an unspectacular but reliable option to balance the Barcelona team from the right

Rafinha is an unspectacular but reliable option to balance the Barcelona team from the right

Rafinha is an unspectacular but reliable option to balance the Barcelona team from the right

Malcom has had a slow start to life at Barcelona but could see this as his chance to shine

Malcom has had a slow start to life at Barcelona but could see this as his chance to shine

Malcom has had a slow start to life at Barcelona but could see this as his chance to shine

Option No 3 leaves Suarez and Coutinho up front alone and adds a fourth body to midfield. If Sergi Roberto has fully recovered from a hamstring injury which kept him out of Barcelona’s recent win at Wembley over Tottenham he could step back into a midfield quartet alongside Arthur, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets.

Arturo Vidal is another who has the big-game experience and would bolster a midfield four. He has made few friends at Barcelona by venting his frustration on social media about his limited starts – and he was caught apparently close to dozing off on the bench at the weekend. But he is battle-worn and knows how to deliver in the big games.

Valverde is not convinced by any of the options but missing Messi has to be overcome somehow.

In previous campaigns the team has managed without their talisman. Messi has missed 51 games in the past six seasons and Barcelona have lost only seven of them.

In one of those campaigns a certain Neymar took the reigns to ensure Messi was not missed. Now Valverde needs the same from another Brazilian. Coutinho’s time to be that £142m player has come.

Arturo Vidal could be welcomed into the setup but a change in formation will be needed

Arturo Vidal could be welcomed into the setup but a change in formation will be needed

Arturo Vidal could be welcomed into the setup but a change in formation will be needed

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