Ousmane Dembele took another step on the road to redemption as Barcelona eased past Villarreal on Sunday to move back to the top of La Liga. Dembele, dropped last month by coach Ernesto Valverde, was making his second consecutive start and repaid the faith by teeing up Gerard Pique’s opening goal in a comfortable 2-0 win at the Camp Nou. Carles Alena, the 20-year-old Spaniard also regarded as a star of the future, came off the bench to add a late flourish, chipping in his first La Liga goal and Barca’s second after a defence-splitting pass from Lionel Messi.
“Alena has earned his step up to the first team,” Valverde said.
A narrow victory puts Barca back at the top, in front of Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, who were each held to 1-1 draws earlier on Sunday, away to Alaves and Girona respectively.
Villarreal, meanwhile, stay 17th, with the pressure mounting on coach Javier Calleja, who has overseen only one league win since September.
Alena, a dainty attacking midfielder with 13 years training in Barca’s academy, is likely to enjoy many more celebrations in front of the club’s fans but for Dembele, the sense was time had been running out.
Valverde’s patience with the 21-year-old appeared to be wearing thin when he was dropped against Real Betis three weeks ago but a late equaliser against Atletico earned a reprieve, and this was another lively performance.
“He played a great game and was one of our outstanding players,” Valverde said. “He has so many assets – penetration, dribbling, shooting, speed, confidence, daring. Let’s hope it continues like this.”
Heartening too for Valverde will have been the clean sheet, Barcelona’s first in the league since the second game of the season back in August.
An early Dembele shot might have gone in had it not been blocked by Santiago Caseres before the Frenchman turned provider, picking out Pique with a perfectly judged cross. Pique held off Victor Ruiz, perhaps even too vigorously, and headed in.