LONDON: Philippe Coutinho’s long-term future might lie away from Liverpool, but the Brazil star’s ability to focus on the present has helped heal the wounds from his flirtation with Barcelona.
When Jurgen Klopp’s side travel to Sevilla for a crucial Champions League clash on Tuesday, they will rely on Coutinho to lead their bid to get the win that would book their place in the last 16.
For Coutinho to be at the centre of Liverpool’s season is a testament to the peace-making skills of Klopp and the forward’s refusal to let his failed attempt to force a move to Barcelona make him public enemy number one on Merseyside.
Just two months ago, Coutinho’s relationship with his club and their fans was badly frayed after he handed in a transfer request while Barca tried to convince Liverpool to sell their prize asset with bids rising to over £100 million ($132 million).
Liverpool’s American owners were adamant Coutinho wasn’t for sale at that late stage of the transfer window, prompting mutterings from the 25-year-old’s camp that he was angry with the decision.
Klopp cleverly kept both his employers and the player happy toeing the company line without criticising Coutinho.
When he finally returned to action after an injury-hit start to the season, Coutinho repaid his manager for his diplomacy.
On a red-hot streak of late, Coutinho bagged his fifth goal of the season in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Southampton on Saturday.
It was Coutinho’s fifth strike in his last seven appearances, but the Brazil forward’s value to Liverpool is measured in more than just goals.
When Coutinho first arrived at Anfield following his £8.5 million move from Inter Milan in 2013, he believed he was in danger of being pigeon-holed as solely a playmaker.
Quickly adjusting to the unique demands of the frenetic Premier League, Coutinho realised it was important to work on the defensive side of his game.
He also focused on developing a more nuanced understanding of how to thrive in a team structure rather than playing on instinct alone.
– More rounded –
“I have grown immensely since I’ve been here,” Coutinho told Goal.com recently.
“I have become stronger here in every way. Every year, I’ve felt like I’ve taken more on and become better, more complete and mentally prepared, not only with football but life in general.
“I have never wanted to settle because I know that improvement is something that doesn’t stop.
“There are always new things you can pick up and many ways to develop. I’m happy with how much I’ve grown, but I’m not finished yet.
“When I arrived, I had only been seen or thought of as a playmaker.
“But I’ve had the opportunity to work with top professionals, real quality players, and under good managers, which has helped me understand the responsibilities of different positions and what each one requires.
“I am used to and confident now in many areas of the pitch and it has made me more rounded. I don’t just attack better, I defend better too.”
Coutinho could eventually leave Anfield, most likely at the end of the season if Barca return with another mega-money offer.
For now, with Egypt winger Mohamed Salah also in blistering form, Klopp can call on two transcendent talents in Seville as Liverpool face the toughest test of their group campaign.
With Coutinho back in the groove, Liverpool — on a four-match winning streak — have the weapons to fight fire with fire.