Luis Enrique 'Very Proud' of Barcelona Form After Copa del Rey Win vs. Bilbao

Alex KebleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2017

FC Barcelona's coach Luis Enrique speaks during a press conference at the Sports Center FC Barcelona Joan Gamper in Sant Joan Despi, Spain, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. FC Barcelona will play against Borussia Monchengladbach in a Champions League Group C soccer match on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

Barcelona manager Luis Enrique said he is "proud" of his players for their efforts over the last three matches and that he is "optimistic" about the future, per Marca.

The Catalan club beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1 on Wednesday night to narrowly seal progression to the quarter-final of to the Copa del Rey. Goals from Luis Suarez, Neymar, and Lionel Messi were enough to overturn a 2-1 deficit from the first leg and hand Barcelona their first win of 2017.

But despite stuttering results, Luis Enrique expressed his pleasure with the progress his players are making.

"These last three games make me feel very proud as a coach," he said, per Marca. "I've seen things very similar in all three games. I've seen control of the game, and today against Athletic, for example, we created many chances."

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

Barca's 1-1 draw at Villarreal in La Liga on Sunday closed the gap between themselves and league leaders Real Madrid to five points, and Zinedine Zidane's men have a game in hand on their rivals.

Although they are not in form domestically, Luis Enrique believes his players have improved compared to late 2016, when Barcelona drew three consecutive league games across November and December.

He said, per Marca:

Winning is always good. The image of my team in these last three matches has improved from the 2016 version. It makes me optimistic from what I have seen in training and when we compete. 

Against Athletic, we did not lose our composure and we created scoring chances. I think we deserved to progress.

The victory, and consequent much-needed confidence boost, comes before a run of winnable games for Luis Enrique's side. Barca face Las Palmas, Eibar, Real Betis, Athletic and Alaves before the crucial Champions League round-of-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain. Of these five teams, only Athletic reside within the top eight in La Liga.

Neymar's penalty goal in the 48th minute was his first for the club since October 19, as Sky Sports Statto pointed out:

However, the Barca boss spoke of his happiness with the MSN forward trio regardless of the goalscoring returns of its components.

"If the MSN do not score themselves, they lay off assists," he said, per Marca. "They are key players. There can be no doubt about these three players and their abilityit would be ridiculous to do so."

Luis Enrique's pride may be designed to boost his players' confidence after their recent troubles. A Copa del Rey quarter-final, between several La Liga matches against lower-ranked teams, presents the perfect opportunity to build some momentum in order to close the gap to Real Madrid.