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Crunch time for Coutinho as Barcelona goes to Liverpool

Barcelona's Philippe Coutinho, left, shoots on goal as Liverpool's Virgil Van Dijk tries to block the shot during the Champions League semifinal first leg soccer match between FC Barcelona and Liverpool at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Philippe Coutinho is facing his most important match since joining Barcelona from Liverpool when the Brazil midfielder returns to Anfield with a place in the Champions League final at stake.

Despite flashes of his world-class talent, Coutinho has endured a troubled season and a half since Barcelona paid a club-record transfer fee to pry him away from Liverpool.

But a leg injury to forward Ousmane Dembele means that it is even more likely Coutinho will be in Barcelona’s starting lineup on Tuesday when the Spanish champion takes a 3-0 advantage into the second leg of its Champions League semifinal against Liverpool.

Unless coach Ernesto Valverde decides to play with an extra midfielder — and leave Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez alone in attack — Coutinho will be Barcelona’s third forward.

Coutinho is in serious need of a strong showing in a high-stakes match to quell speculation among some Barcelona fans that he should be traded this summer.

Valverde has never lost faith in Coutinho, even when he has underperformed and come in for criticism from the media and the club’s supporters.

Coutinho has scored 11 goals this season for Barcelona. His last one was a superb strike from outside the area to round off an aggregate 4-0 victory over Manchester United in the quarterfinals. Yet instead of celebrating the goal with his teammates, Coutinho enraged some of Barcelona’s supporters by sticking his fingers in his ears in a gesture that seemed to suggest he didn’t want to hear any more complaints about his performances.

Coutinho had a chance to redeem himself last Wednesday in the opening leg against Liverpool. But he was jeered again at Camp Nou when his sloppy passing let Liverpool counterattack and forced Barcelona’s defense had to scramble back.

And when Liverpool hemmed Barcelona in its area in the second half, Valverde chose Coutinho to come off and replaced him with defender Nelson Semedo. That allowed Sergi Roberto to move forward from right back and strengthen Barcelona’s midfield.

The move paid off by giving Barcelona more balance and control of the ball. That was all Messi needed to score his two goals and turn a game hanging in the balance into a commanding victory.

It had seemed like Coutinho’s spot in the starting lineup might be at risk with Dembele’s speed ideal to punish a Liverpool team that has to attack and score early.

But Dembele injured his right leg Saturday in a 2-0 loss at Celta Vigo. Barcelona had clinched the Spanish league title the week before and Dembele and midfielder Arthur were the only two players likely to have considerable game time against Liverpool who played against Celta.

“(Dembele) is an important player for us and it would be a blow to lose him for what remains of the season,” Valverde said.

If Valverde does leave Coutinho on the bench, his only other options in the forwards are the little used Malcom and Kevin-Prince Boateng. The more likely alternative would be starting Semedo and changing to a 4-4-2 formation with Roberto in midfield, along with Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and either Arturo Vidal or Arthur. Messi and Suárez can provide more than enough scoring punch with 73 goals between them this season.

Coutinho, now 26, scored 41 Premier League goals for Liverpool from 2013 until his move to Barcelona in January 2018 for 160 million euros (then $192 million).

One more starring performance in Liverpool could help him finally win over fans at his new club, by sending Barca into the June 1 final in Madrid.

The opponent would be Ajax or Tottenham, which trails 1-0 heading into the second leg in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

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