Ousmane Dembele’s strike, capping a brilliant individual display, helped Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 1-0 on Wednesday, and reach the Copa del Rey semi-finals.
The French forward struck in the 52nd minute to power the record 31-time cup-winners through against 10-man La Real, who had Brais Mendez sent off late in the first half.
Barcelona have enjoyed a strong start to 2023, winning the Spanish Super Cup and moving three points clear of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, and continued it in a pulsating cup clash.
Imanol Alguacil’s Real Sociedad have thrilled in the league, sitting third, but were missing veteran playmaker David Silva and Mikel Merino through injury.
Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez, on his 43rd birthday, guided his team to a nervy victory, thanks to Dembele.
The coach defended Dembele when taking over at Barcelona in November 2021, saying that with hard work he could be the best winger in the world.
“The most important thing is having the mentality that you will make the difference at Barcelona,” Xavi told reporters on Wednesday.
“For me, Dembele is still one of the best in the world in his position. I am happy for him because he’s a good guy and a good professional.
“He has turned things around and that is not easy at Barca.”
The Catalans came out of the blocks quickly and Robert Lewandowski had an effort blocked after the electric Dembele found him.
At the other end Takefusa Kubo crashed a shot against the crossbar, as the game ebbed and flowed in entertaining fashion.
Barcelona fans frequently showed their ire towards referee Jesus Gil Manzano in the first half — he was the official who sent off Lewandowski against Osasuna in November, resulting in a ban which the Pole is still serving in La Liga.
However it was Real Sociedad midfielder Mendez who was sent off at Camp Nou on Wednesday, just before half-time.
The Spaniard lunged in on Sergio Busquets, catching his compatriot with his studs above the ankle.
Early in the second half, Barcelona broke the deadlock when Jules Kounde slid Dembele in down the right wing and he drove into the box and lashed the ball past Alex Remiro at the near post.
It was the French forward’s third goal in six games and another sign of his superb form under Xavi.
“It’s hard to stop a player at such a level, in form and having a day like this,” said Alguacil.
“We made things too easy for him in the first half … I think we were afraid. If you give half a metre to Dembele, you’re screwed.”
Now that Dembele has found a coach who believes in him — and signed a new deal last summer — he has become vital at Barcelona.