LONDON – Amid a mountain of rumors, denials, exclusive (even world-exclusive) stories and endless hours of discussion, Philippe Coutinho remains a Liverpool player. Many will congratulate owners FSG for keeping to their word (which most doubted it would keep) and not sell the forward to Barcelona whose third bid of £118 million was turned down by Liverpool.
Juergen Klopp is fed up talking about Coutinhogate, not least because he is asked the same questions over and over again.
“My English isn’t good enough to give 500 different answers to the same question,” he said this week, but insisted there would be no hard feelings towards the allegedly want-away player.
“He will be welcomed back with open arms once he is fit again,” said Klopp. “You asked is everything OK between us? I answered with ‘of course.’ Yes, indeed, absolutely, 100 percent. Phil can’t start tomorrow because on top (of the back problem) he’s now ill.”
The one person we have not heard from is Coutinho, his current injury/illness situation manna from heaven for those who love a conspiracy theory.
Liverpool has had a reputation of being a selling club in recent years with Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling all leaving for what most would consider bigger clubs, with only Torres having given his best years to the Merseysiders.
This time, Liverpool looks to have stuck its heels in and while there are five days remaining before the transfer window closes until January, Barcelona appears to have accepted that, unusually, it will not get its man. Sooner or later Coutinho will have to say something, but in the meantime the rumor mill is speaking on the player’s behalf.
According to Brazilian newspaper Estadao, it was Barca that manipulated Coutinho to threaten Liverpool of never playing again as a tactic to increase the deal’s likelihood. Estadao claimed that Coutinho’s agents (note plural) are now on the defensive after Liverpool flatly refused to do business with Barcelona. They’re making noises that the Brazil international wants to reintegrate himself into Klopp’s starting XI and that he never told the manager he wouldn’t play for Liverpool again, which, if true, is a damage-limitation exercise from Team Coutinho.
However, in Spain, Don Balon reported something completely different. The magazine claimed it was, in fact, Lionel Messi who scuppered any hopes of a deal to take Coutinho to the Nou Camp because the Argentine was unhappy that either Ivan Rakitic or Sergi Roberto could be part of a swap deal. This has a strong whiff of pure fantasy about it and underlines the pressure to find something new to write about a transfer saga.
The Observer reminded us what Coutinho, who signed a new five-year deal last season, said about Liverpool in January.
“My football is here. My heart is here. I don’t think about any other club. Not at all. I live it, I smell it, I see the ambition of Liverpool, of my teammates, of the manager. I understand what Liverpool means. We can say Dalglish, Rush, Hansen, Souness, Suarez, Gerrard. My goal is one day to be thought of in the same way. You define the success of a player by his loyalty or his titles. Or both. I have much work to do.”
Of course, seven months can be a long time in football, especially when the chance to become the second-most expensive player in the world after Neymar, who joined PSG from Barcelona for £199 million, comes along.
The challenge Klopp has is to ensure Coutinho plays like a £118 million player and not one who is disillusioned after seeing a move to one of the world’s top three clubs blocked.
Barcelona, even a Barca in something of a transition period, will surely remain serious challengers for domestic and European glory. Liverpool, in contrast, has won just one major honor — the 2012 League Cup — in the last 10 years, and its wait for a league title extends 27 years and counting.
For all his undoubted passing skill, the ability to produce moments of inspiration and clinical finishing, one quality Coutinho has not yet mastered is consistency. If the 9 of 10 displays outweigh the 5 of 10 performances, it is a narrow margin. He is nowhere near as consistent as Liverpool’s most recent icon, Steven Gerrard, was, while until the sands of time caught up with Andres Iniesta, recalling a below-par game by the Spanish maestro provided a severe test of the memory.
In the past, Coutinho has been forgiven for going AWOL in a match if he scored a sensational winner the following week. When he returns from injury and illness, Coutinho will be judged by different standards. Newspapers will send reporters to Liverpool matches for a Coutinho watch. Every pass, every tackle, every shot, in fact everything will face forensic scrutiny. Coverage is unlikely to be PC. There will be no hiding place, no accepted indulgences and to win over the Anfield crowd Coutinho must be at least 8 of 10.
At his best, Coutinho is sensational, but the hard-nose view is that £118 million was way in excess of the player’s real value, even in an inflated, mad market. FSG has backed itself into a corner by saying that “the club’s definitive stance is that no offers for Philippe will be considered and he will remain a member of Liverpool Football Club when the summer window closes.”
It gives the American-based owners no way out even when what everyone else (probably even Klopp, too, privately at least) believes is an offer way above the player’s true value. Liverpool could survive without Coutinho because its attack has plenty of options. The Brazilian’s fee could have helped Klopp strengthen a defense that has already been exposed by Watford and Hoffenheim and is not good enough for the sterner tests to come.
When Coutinho, albeit reluctantly it seems whatever the sound bites, returns he will at least be able to play in the Champions League after Liverpool beat Hoffenheim 6-3 on aggregate. The football gods will, however, no doubt ensure Liverpool plays Barcelona at some stage, assuming they both qualify from the group stages.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.