Paulinho proving his worth to Barca
BARCELONA, Spain (AP):
When Paulinho arrived in Spain last summer, most Barcelona fans were unimpressed.
The 29-year-old Brazilian looked like a poor replacement for the younger, and flashier Neymar after the star striker forced his record-breaking transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.
But Paulinho is a big reason why Barcelona have quickly turned the page four months after Neymar left them in the lurch to open up a commanding lead in the Spanish league.
His contribution to his new team was more evident than ever on Saturday, when he helped Barcelona to a lopsided 3-0 victory at fierce rivals Real Madrid.
Paulinho was only stopped from scoring a goal when Dani Carvajal blatantly used his arm to block his goal-bound header in the second half. Little did it help, since it cost the Madrid defender a direct red card and sent Lionel Messi to the penalty spot to make it 2-0.
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde praised his player after the match.
"The second goal was decisive," Valverde said. "Paulinho is a player who goes forward in attack very well, and can surprise the defence with his runs into the area. He works hard and covers a lot of kilometers. He helps us a lot."
Paulinho's impact was seen from the very start when he was Barcelona's top threat during an early stretch when Madrid was dominating.
He went close to scoring early when he latched onto a lobbed pass by Messi, only for goalkeeper Keylor Navas to get his fingers on his rising strike and push the ball over the bar.
The Messi-Paulinho connection clicked again before half-time, when the Brazilian headed his teammate's cross toward the goal where Navas did well to save it.
"I am very happy. I don't have words to describe winning my first 'clasico' against a rival like Madrid," Paulinho said. "Today my shots didn't go in, but the most important thing is to help the team achieve great results at the biggest stadiums."
In August, some of Barcelona's fans and sports press questioned spending 40 million euros on Paulinho, who at 29 was playing in the Chinese league after a disappointing stint at Tottenham in the English Premier League.
With his large frame and more direct playing style, Paulinho didn't fit the standard mould of the lightweight, ball-controlling midfielder that Barcelona tends to feature.
But he quickly proved his worth to the club by giving Valverde a big, box-to-box midfielder that Barcelona hasn't had since the days of Yaya Toure several seasons ago.
Paulinho made a difference almost from the start. He used his powerful build to hold off a tackle before scoring his first goal in his third appearance for Barcelona, a winner to complete a 2-1 comeback at Getafe.
He went on to add five more goals in 17 rounds, making him Barcelona's third-leading scorer after Messi and Luis Suarez.