LONDON - Come May, Philippe Coutinho will probably have a La Liga and possibly a Copa del Rey winners’ medal. He cannot play for Barcelona in the Champions League as he is ineligible, but two — even one — medal would be welcome because they would be the first club honors the Brazil midfielder, 25, has won. Coutinho didn’t win a single trophy during his five years at Liverpool or three years with Inter Milan.
The transfer of Coutinho from Liverpool was inevitable because Barcelona and Real Madrid always get their man as they remain the two clubs whose offers cannot be refused. Once they have a player in their sights, as the Merseysiders found with Javier Mascherano and Luis Suarez to Barca plus Xabi Alonso to Real, it is only a matter of time before Liverpool is swapped for La Liga.
It is difficult to deny a player his wish to move to either of the true heavyweights of world football where winners’ medals are as good as guaranteed and from a business viewpoint the sale of Coutinho for £142 million made sense. It is a massive profit from five years ago when Liverpool, with Brendan Rodgers in charge, paid Inter Milan £8.5 million for the midfielder after former manager Rafa Benitez, then coach of Inter, recommended him to his former club.
Benitez said: “He was 18 then and very shy at that time, but a nice lad who worked hard. He had the potential and the quality, so he was making a difference in training. I remember some of his runs against one of the senior players, who couldn’t keep up with him.”
If Coutinho was so highly rated, why did Inter almost give him away? Coutinho initially appeared unsuited to the Premier League. He was clearly a talented footballer, but his stamina was questionable, he was of slight frame and his finishing was poor. While Coutinho has become a very good player, he is not one who will be remembered as a Liverpool great alongside the likes of Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Graeme Souness or even Luis Suarez from the modern era. For all his skill, Coutinho is not a midfield maestro who consistently has a decisive effect on matches as Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Eden Hazard, Luka Modric, Thiago Alcantara or Andres Iniesta do.
He has scored breathtaking goals, including stunning free kicks, and his departure must weaken Liverpool to an extent, but the loss of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino would hurt the team more. The Fab Four forwards have been reduced to the Fab Three yet with Adam Lalana fit again and ready to resume the attacking midfield role vacated by Coutinho, Liverpool’s front-line should still fire on all cylinders.
As we live in a football world of instant judgment, victory over Manchester City, or even a draw, Sunday will see “Who needs Coutinho?” headlines. A loss would underline how much Liverpool misses him. It is how it is.
Even before Coutinho’s transfer to Barcelona, the match between Liverpool and City was always going to be one of the most eagerly awaited of the season. Mane, Roberto Firmino and Salah are bang-in form and represent as potent a strike force as unbeaten City will have faced during its unbeaten run. The trio has scored 31 Premier League goals between them and Liverpool has improved significantly since City thrashed it 5-0 last September.
The arrival of £75 million defender Virgil van Dijk from Southampton represents about half of the Coutinho fee. The next priority should be a goalkeeper because neither Simon Mignolet nor Loris Karius is of the class needed to challenge for the title, though any new arrival is more likely to be during the summer when midfielder Naby Keita will join Liverpool from RB Leipzig for £55 million.
Victory over City on Sunday would barely affect the visitor’s title hopes, but it would be a massive boost for Jurgen Klopp’s team in the sideshow of finishing in the top four. Though City has won 19 of its last 20 Premier League matches, Liverpool has not lost in the last 15 meetings at Anfield against the Blues. Confidence is high as Liverpool is unbeaten in 17 games in all competitions and 18 at Anfield. The problem is, Liverpool is playing Manchester City, which seems to have forgotten how to lose and sets a new record with every goal. All good things have to come to an end and with no midweek match Liverpool will be well prepared for English football’s ultimate test.
The Football Association is continuing an inquiry that can only end with it finding no evidence to support any racism in an incident involving Mason Holgate of Everton and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino. Holgate shoved Firmino who fell over an advertising board. Firmino, a dark skinned Brazilian, confronted Holgate who is of Jamaican descent and is claimed to have racially abused the Everton player with referee Bobby Madley and other players within earshot.
An official F.A. statement read: “The F.A. can confirm that referee Bobby Madley was made aware of an allegation during the Liverpool versus Everton game at Anfield last night. He has subsequently reported this to the F.A., which will now begin making enquiries into the matter.”
It was obvious that Madley heard nothing untoward at the time and the F.A. statement does not include any reference to racism. If a referee hears a player using a racist insult to another, he must show the red card and include the words in his report.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.