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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Philippe Coutinho's return can propel Liverpool's Champions League expectations into a formality

Liverpool face long trip to Spartak Moscow in the Champions League but buoyed by return of their No 10

Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho smiles during a training session. Craig Brough / Reuters
Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho smiles during a training session. Craig Brough / Reuters

Omitted from the squad for the Uefa Champion League play-offs, and deemed not ready to start in the opening round of the group stage, Philippe Coutinho should finally play a central role for Liverpool on Tuesday.

The Brazilian had missed the first five matches this season. For much of the summer, he seemed Barcelona bound. To their credit, Liverpool stood firm, insisting all the time that their prize asset would not be prized from the club. The price accelerated well past £100 million (Dh497m). Barca tabled three bids. Liverpool never relented.

For his part, Coutinho kept relatively quiet, publicly at least, despite handing in a transfer request hours after a club statement insisted he would not be sold. Others conveyed his dismay instead, with Neymar declaring how his international teammate and long-time friend was experiencing a moment of “anguish, disappointment and sadness” as the transfer window ground to a halt.

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It felt strange that Coutinho could play for Brazil but not for Liverpool. At times, his back injury appeared a convenience, perhaps even contrived. But then the transfer window closed and Liverpool’s No 10 remained Liverpool’s No 10.

Against Leicester City on Saturday, Coutinho proved once again Liverpool’s No 1 creative outlet. It took him all of 23 minutes. First, he curled a wonderful cross towards Mohamed Salah, leaving the Egyptian winger little option but to head Liverpool in front.

Six minutes later, Coutinho arched a free kick above the Leicester wall and beyond Kasper Schmeichel in the home goal. It was the fourth time he had scored with a Premier League free kick since the beginning of the 2015/16 season. Only Gylfi Sigurdsson can claim to have matched that.

Eventually, Liverpool won 3-2. If the second half was typically helter-skelter, the first half was bent to Coutinho’s beat. He dominated and dictated. In the absence of the suspended Sadio Mane, he carried Liverpool forward.

Even with Mane back for the Champions League clash at Spartak Moscow on Tuesday, Coutinho will need to exercise that same control. Particularly given that a team who can be devastating in attack struggle to keep tight at the back.

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At the King Power Stadium on Saturday, Liverpool let slip a position of command. Simon Mignolet’s penalty prevented three points from reducing to one. Two goals conceded meant Liverpool have been breached 10 times in their opening three away matches in the league, their worst record for that period since 1937.

In 10 matches in all competitions this season, they have two cleans sheets. They began their Champions League Group E campaign two weeks ago by outplaying Sevilla at Anfield, but a couple of costly errors resulted in a disappointing 2-2 draw. The problems were individual and collective.

So Jurgen Klopp’s “heavy metal” brand of football is a little light on defensive steel. The knock-on effect is that it makes Coutinho’s contribution all the more crucial.

Spartak Moscow will offer a test, given Massimo Carrera's side are further into their season. But they are seventh in the 16-team Russian top flight and have defensive frailties, too. Like Liverpool, Spartak were held on Match Day 1, drawing 1-1 at Slovenia’s Maribor.

Thus, an embryonic group remains delicately poised. Victory, even at this early stage, sets up a side well for progression, easing the strain as domestic commitments harden after the upcoming international break. Liverpool were always expected to advance. Coutinho’s return to form and full fitness should help turn that expectation into a formality.

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