March 12, 2018 / 3:57 PM / 7 days ago

Revitalised Dembele can help Barcelona fill Neymar void

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Ousmane Dembele endured a rough start to his Barcelona career but the French winger appears to be finding his feet at a crucial time in the season.

Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - Barcelona vs Levante - Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain - January 7, 2018 Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele appluads the fans as he is substituted off REUTERS/Albert Gea

Barcelona signed him in August from Borussia Dortmund for a then club record fee of 105 million euros ($129 million), plus a potential 40 million in add-ons, hoping he could replace Neymar after PSG had swooped for the Brazilian.

Two serious injuries limited Dembele’s participation until recent weeks, and even after he started playing regularly he was making little impact in matches.

In Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Malaga on Saturday, however, Dembele shone, setting up Philippe Coutinho with a brilliant turn and cross to draw praise from his team mates.

With Coutinho Cup-tied in the Champions League, Dembele could provide the flair Barcelona lost when Neymar departed, starting in Wednesday’s last-16 second leg against Chelsea at the Nou Camp with the tie level at 1-1.

Reports in Spain have suggested Neymar wants a return to Barca, which players including Ivan Rakitic and Coutinho have welcomed.

“It would be great for us if he came back and of course we would open the door to that (possibility),” Coutinho said on Monday.

But coach Ernesto Valverde played down the speculation, describing it as a “fantasy”.

“We don’t know where it’s come from or where it’s going to end,” he said.

A Neymar return would upset the balance of the team which Valverde has found to keep Barcelona unbeaten in 28 La Liga games.

It would also block Dembele’s path, which seems ill-advised now the Frenchman is firing.

“He’s a player who had problems and it’s better to forget them now,” Barcelona’s director of institutional relations Guillermo Amor said.

“He’s getting into the group dynamic, he’s young, daring, and in football today that’s the hardest thing.”

($1 = 0.8118 euros)

Reporting by Rik Sharma, Editing by Ed Osmond

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