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Raphinha finding Barca footing ahead of Villarreal trip

Barcelona winger Raphinha is finally hitting his best form and helping the Catalans cope without the injured Ousmane Dembele, ahead of the La Liga leaders’ trip to face Villarreal on Sunday.

The French forward went off hurt against Girona at the end of January but Raphinha has stepped up to fill the gap despite an erratic start to his career at the club.

Signed from Leeds United for around 55 million euros ($59 million) last summer, the Brazilian was often shunned for the improving Dembele.

However, with the former Borussia Dortmund forward out for up to five weeks, Raphinha has ensured the club have not stumbled in his absence.

The 26-year-old scored against Real Betis in a 2-1 win on February 1 and then again in the 3-0 win over Sevilla on Sunday, helping Barcelona open an eight point chasm above second place Real Madrid.

Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres have been reduced to lesser roles as Raphinha claimed Dembele’s place and midfielder Gavi is being deployed on the left of the attack.

“Although there is outside criticism, we value his work,” said Xavi after the win over Sevilla.

As well as scoring, Raphinha set up a goal for Gavi with a razor-sharp pass and played a significant part in Jordi Alba’s opener.

“He’s intense, he attacks space, he gives us a lot in attack and is being decisive,” continued Xavi.

“Now it might seem like he’s standing out more, but he’s an extraordinary player.”

Raphinha had only been handed eight starts in the league before Barcelona faced Girona and that inconsistency led to mixed performances.

Xavi must decide whether or not to start with Raphinha on the right flank against Villarreal, with the first leg of the Europa League play-off round against Manchester United looming on Thursday.

Give the team’s sizeable advantage in the top flight he might keep the Brazilian in reserve and hand Torres the opportunity to play on his favoured right side.

With victory Barcelona can move 11 points clear of the champions, who are not playing at the weekend because of their involvement in the Club World Cup.

Quique Setien’s Villarreal have been improving under the former Barcelona coach but fell to a shock 3-1 defeat by bottom of the table Elche last weekend.

It was Elche’s first win of the season and a bitter blow for the Yellow Submarine’s hopes of Champions League qualification.

Villarreal are currently sixth, four points behind fourth place Atletico Madrid.

“We must be self-critical because this is a defeat that hurts,” said goalkeeper Pepe Reina.

“It is a defeat that weighs heavily (on us), but we continue onwards.

“We must analyse during the week what needs to be improved, because without a doubt, there are many things.”

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