VALENCIA, Spain – Recent acquisition Philippe Coutinho scored a magnificent goal off an equally remarkable play by Luis Suarez as FC Barcelona finished off a 3-0 victory on aggregate over Valencia Thursday night in the Copa del Rey semifinals.
Barça came into the second leg at Mestalla Stadium in excellent shape after haven taken the opening match at Camp Nou 1-0 on Feb. 1.
But Valencia came out with an intelligent game plan and had chances to equalize in the first half, happily ceding ball possession to the Catalans while waiting patiently for opportunities on the counter-attack.
The home side kept things close, with goalkeeper Jaume Domenech doing his part with a tremendous fist save off a dangerous free kick by Argentine superstar Lionel Messi in the eighth minute.
Still just one goal down, Valencia nearly got the equalizer on an outstanding header by Rodrigo that beat Barça net minder Jasper Cillessen but clanked off the crossbar.
Later, a great individual effort by Simone Zaza nearly set up a golden scoring chance, but the play was disrupted when the Italian’s pass to Luciano Vietto grazed Barcelona defender Sergi Roberto’s heel.
Even so, the ball ended up inside the penalty arc, where Rodrigo got off a powerful blast that Cillessen did well to save.
After the intermission, Barça head coach Ernesto Valverde sent on Coutinho, who arrived during the winter transfer window via a whopping 142-million-pound ($198 million) transfer from Premier League side Liverpool.
On his very first touch of Thursday night’s game, he slid forward to get his foot on a perfectly placed pass from the left side by Suarez, who had maneuvered around a Valencia defender, and bounce the ball at an acute angle into the left side of the goal in the 49th minute.
Joy and relief were apparent on the face of the Brazilian international, whose price tag also comes with sky-high expectations of being one of the Catalan club’s cornerstones.
For Valencia, however, it was a crushing blow since the club suddenly found itself needing three goals to have any chance of advancing to its first Copa del Rey final since 2008.
Head coach Marcelino Garcia Toral sought to give his club a fighting chance by putting in Carlos Soler and Goncalo Guedes, and Valencia subsequently upped its intensity in pursuit of a goal.
Jose Luis Gaya nearly made the aggregate score 2-1 but Cillessen made a miraculous, handball-type save at point-blank range.
Later, finding space against an aggressive opponent, Barcelona managed a second goal of the night – and third overall – when Suarez stole the ball from Brazilian defender Gabriel and set up Ivan Rakitic for a score in the 82nd minute.
Afterward, Coutinho told Gol TV that he was very pleased to have scored his first goal in a Barcelona uniform.
“In any case, there’s a lot of time to go until the final, and we have other important matches in other competitions. There’ll be time to get ready for the (Copa del Rey) final,” the Brazilian attacking midfielder said.
Next up for Barça in the April 21 Copa del Rey championship match will be Sevilla, which advanced Wednesday night with a 3-1 victory on aggregate over Leganes.
In the previous round, Leganes had stunned Real Madrid based on away goals.