Philippe Coutinho is coming good for Barcelona… just at the wrong time for Liverpool as two sides prepare to meet in Champions League semi-finals
- Philippe Coutinho has raised his game just in time for the crunch Liverpool clash
- It has been tough for the player Barcelona bought from Liverpool for £146million
- Coutinho was their record signing and the third most expensive player in history
- He had struggled to deliver until the visit of Manchester United two weeks ago
Philippe Coutinho will start on Wednesday night for Barcelona against Liverpool, having raised his game just in time for the biggest match of his Nou Camp career.
It has been a tough season for the player Barcelona bought from Liverpool for £146million in January 2018.
Coutinho, 26, was Barcelona’s record signing and commanded the third biggest transfer fee in history, with an added clause that would see the Catalans pay a £100m premium if they wanted to sign another Liverpool player before the summer of 2020.
Philippe Coutinho has raised his game just in time for biggest match of his Nou Camp career
Coutinho celebrated his first La Liga title with his Barcelona team-mates on Saturday night
COUTINHO AT BARCA
Total minutes played: 3,066
And yet for all the money, Coutinho had struggled to deliver until the visit of Manchester United two weeks ago. Even then he soured what had been his best Nou Camp performance in a Barcelona shirt by putting his fingers in his ears when celebrating scoring the third goal.
It was a protest at what he sees as a lack of respect and patience from supporters. In the next home game he was whistled when taken off against Real Sociedad — you can’t take on the fans at the two big clubs in Spain.
But when Barcelona won the league on Saturday, those recriminations were forgotten as he put in another excellent performance. He had five shots on target and a free-kick rattled the bar before he was taken off at half-time.
The substitution allowed Lionel Messi to get 45 minutes in before the visit of Liverpool and all but confirmed Coutinho’s place in the line-up on Wednesday night.
Coach Ernesto Valverde has spent most of the season defending him, and on Saturday Coutinho looked ready to repay him. ‘No one is ahead of anyone else,’ Valverde said last week when asked if Coutinho had overtaken Ousmane Dembele in the pecking order to play alongside Luis Suarez and Messi.
Coutinho put his fingers to his ears after scoring against Manchester United in the last eight
But Valverde’s assistant Jon Aspiazu, during a pre-match interview before a cup game in January, told Spanish television: ‘It’s true that Coutinho right now is not at the level he was last season, and that Dembele has moved above him.’
Coutinho’s advisers did not like that frankness, or the idea that he was now, in effect, 12th man.
But Coutinho has been supported inside the dressing room. Valverde spoke to him about being quicker in possession and braver with the ball at his feet. And Suarez put his arm round him and reminded him of what an opportunity the Champions League semi-final against his old team would provide.
‘Of course I advise him and help him. He’s a friend and a team-mate,’ Suarez told Sportsmail last week. ‘Like it or not, he’s young. He was at Liverpool for many years, proving his quality. It’s not easy to adapt, to fit into the play here.
‘It was hard for me, so I said to him, “Imagine how hard it could be for you, too”.’
Suarez also defended the fingers-in-ears gesture — which was, according to lip-readers, accompanied by the phrase: “Vai a tomar no cu”, Portuguese for “**** you”.
‘The smallest thing you do — and what Philippe did was tiny — is magnified,’ said Suarez.
Luis Suarez will also come up against his former side Liverpool on Wednesday in the Nou Camp
Sadio Mane admitted he is jealous of Barcelona after they bought old team-mate Coutinho
Coutinho does not want his move to Barcelona to end with a quick annulment. There was a birthday party for his wife Aine last month at the Castelldefels beach town on the Costa Brava, close to where they live.
Neighbours Suarez and Messi and their wives, plus team-mates Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets and their wives, were there to help them celebrate.
He felt part of the family again on Saturday night when he celebrated the Spanish title.
The players were out with their wives at the Blue Spot restaurant that Gerard Pique part-owns in the Hotel W that overlooks Barcelona’s main beach.
The celebrations were restrained because of the upcoming Liverpool fixture, but the players were able to let off some steam with the first leg of their possible Treble complete.
Coutinho’s smile was broader than it has been on the pitch for much of the season.
He has come good just in time for Barcelona, and at the worst possible time for Liverpool.