Philippe Coutinho trains with Barca for first time, eyes Espanyol debut

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BARCELONA -- Philippe Coutinho trained with his Barcelona teammates on Saturday and could make his long-awaited debut as soon as Thursday, according to coach Ernesto Valverde.

Barca finally signed Coutinho from Liverpool earlier this month for in club-record €160 million deal after failing with three bids for the Brazilian playmaker last summer.

Coutinho, 25, will not be available for Sunday's league trip to Real Betis but could come into contention for Thursday's Copa del Rey quarterfinal second leg against Espanyol at the Camp Nou.

Failing that, he should be available for the league game against Alaves the following Sunday after being out injured since switching from Anfield two weeks ago.

"I am reluctant to put an exact date on when injured players will return, but the evolution from the injury has been very positive," Valverde told a news conference.

"It was a minor thigh problem, but it's a sensitive area when you're striking the ball, so you have to be careful with it in that regard. But he's doing well."

Pressed on when Coutinho could make his debut, Valverde added: "I don't know if he will be back next week, but we hope that he will be back soon. Thursday [against Espanyol] is possible."

Coutinho is one of a number of players currently sidelined at Barca due to various injuries. Javier Mascherano, Samuel Umtiti, Andres Iniesta, Ousmane Dembele and Paco Alcacer all missed the midweek defeat to Espanyol in the cup, too.

Midfielder Paulinho was also taken off in the defeat at Espanyol, which ended Barca's 29-game unbeaten run in all competitions, and Valverde lamented the number of injuries coinciding with one of the busiest periods on the calendar.

"At the moment we have a number of players injured who play in a similar position," he added. "Mascherano and Umtiti; then Coutinho, Dembele, Alcacer and Iniesta...

"We hope they recover quickly and can take on their share of the workload to allow some of the others to rest a little. January's a tough month and we want to share the minutes out with the rest of the season in mind."

Meanwhile, Yerry Mina could come into contention for Sunday's trip to Betis after receiving international clearance to make his debut this week.

However, Valverde urged caution with the Colombian centre-back, who joined the club from Palmeiras for €11.8m this month.

"We do have [his registration] through now but he's arrived from a different style of football and he's not had a preseason to adapt," Valverde said. "He has to get used to our style of play. It's not easy to go straight into direct competition."

Barca will look to get straight back to winning ways against Betis after losing to rivals Espanyol in midweek.

They remain unbeaten in La Liga, though, and could move 11 points clear at the top of the table after second-placed Atletico Madrid were held by Girona on Saturday.

"You never want to lose and you want to stretch good runs on and on for as long as you can because they're good for morale," Valverde added.

"We lost to a goal two minutes from time, which meant we were unable to turn things around, but it's a cup tie and we will try and come back in the second leg.