BARCELONA (Reuters) - Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde will be banking on new signing Ousmane Dembele to fill the gap left by Neymar’s departure as he looks to overcome off-pitch difficulties when the Catalans take on Espanyol on Saturday.
Barcelona have enjoyed a winning start in La Liga and despite all the off-field drama, Valverde is determined that they make it three wins out of three when they face his former club.
Valverde had a two-year spell as an Espanyol player between 1986 and 1988, reaching the 1988 UEFA Cup final, and later guided Barcelona’s city rivals to the 2007 UEFA Cup final, where they also lost on penalties, during a two-year tenure as coach.
So fond are Espanyol of their former striker that he has a gate named after him at their stadium but on Saturday they will be hoping to take advantage of institutional instability at Barcelona to end their torrid run at the Nou Camp.
Barca have won their last eight La Liga derbies at the Nou Camp dating back to 2009, including 4-0, 5-1 and 5-0 victories in their last three meetings, although there is some hope in Espanyol of ending that dismal run.
Barcelona had a frustrating transfer window, failing to sign top target Philippe Coutinho after losing Neymar to Paris St Germain for a world record fee of 222 million euros ($266 million), and there have also been calls to hold a vote of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
There is also unease at Barca over the future of talisman Lionel Messi and captain Andres Iniesta, who are both out of contract next summer and have yet to sign new deals.
“We haven’t had a good time at the Nou Camp recently, it’s always difficult and we have really struggled to win there, even to pick up a point, but I believe we can get something positive this time,” said Espanyol midfielder Victor Sanchez.
“Right now everyone is talking about what is happening off the pitch at Barcelona, and we hope we can take advantage of that.”
Barca are one of only three teams in La Liga to win both their opening games, beating Real Betis and Alaves 2-0 without hitting top gear but are set to be boosted by the debut appearance of striker Dembele on Saturday.
The France international, 20, joined from Borussia Dortmund as a direct replacement for Neymar, becoming the second most expensive player of all time at 105 million euros, rising to up to 147 million including incentives, despite only playing professional football for two seasons.
Valverde has his whole squad available after the international break aside from Ivan Rakitic, who sustained a hamstring injury while on duty with Croatia.
Elsewhere, champions Real Madrid host Levante hoping to get back to winning ways after drawing 2-2 with Valencia in their last outing. They can recall captain Sergio Ramos from suspension but are still without Cristiano Ronaldo, who is serving the fourth of his five-game ban for pushing a referee.
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Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Pritha Sarkar