Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

Barcelona's Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho a tale of contrasting fortunes after ditching Anfield for Camp Nou

Both left Liverpool in big money moves, but while Suarez has succeeded at Barcelona, Coutinho is yet to win over the doubters. Both return to Anfield for the first time in Tuesday's Champions League semi-final second leg

Barcelona's forward Luis Suarez celebrates his opening goal. EPA
Barcelona's forward Luis Suarez celebrates his opening goal. EPA

Luis Suarez made no concessions to old alliances at Camp Nou last Wednesday. He was snarly. He took an ongoing argument with Liverpool’s Andy Robertson noisily into the tunnel at half time. He reacted with exaggerated pain to strong challenges against him. He struck an excellent centre-forward’s goal.

That opened the scoring and, once a resourceful volley, off Suarez’s knee, had ricocheted back off the Liverpool crossbar to drop kindly for Lionel Messi, a tantalising tie swung decisively in the direction of Barcelona. They begin the second leg of the semi-final 3-0 ahead, an exaggerated margin, perhaps, on the balance of the first 90 minutes, but the sort of status gap Suarez imagined as the difference between the two clubs when he left Anfield for Camp Nou in the summer of 2014.

Back then Liverpool heard his determination to move to Spain and reluctantly resolved that, unable to keep a player whose 31 goals the previous season had propelled the club’s most sustained title bid for many years, they would exact a high sale price. Suarez left as English football’s Player of the Year, for well over €80 million.

He would arrive in Catalonia as his sport’s most notorious villain, bearing a cargo Barcelona had not anticipated: a four-month ban from football imposed after he bit the Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini while playing for Uruguay at that summer’s World Cup. It was Suarez’s third career biting offence, and his third long suspension in the space of three years.

Four Liga titles, four Copas del Rey and a Champions League gold medal later, that seems like ancient history. Suarez is two victories away from a second treble with Barca. He is in the top five of the club’s all-time highest goalscorers with his 177, and he is the best striking partner Messi has known.

That last distinction is not just a blessing granted by the magical Argentine. It is hard to earn: another maverick, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, used to find playing sidekick to Messi a troubling assignment; the thoroughbred Thierry Henry had awkward moments in the role. Neymar moved on, feeling he could better spread his wings elsewhere.

By contrast, Suarez has made his alliance with Messi his mission. To report he has also been tamed at Barcelona might be an overemphasis, but a record of no straight red cards from his 246 Barcelona matches is not the record of a disciplinary recidivist, and the benevolent view from around Anfield on Tuesday would acknowledge he has found a happier, fulfilling home at Barca.

Whether that benevolent view of a footballer whose dynamism was badly missed by Liverpool until the club combined Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino up front means Anfield applause survives a Suarez dive or a Suarez confrontation with an opponent or referee on Tuesday is moot.

But Anfield tends to appreciate its valued ex players. Two of them make their first returns there, and if the circumstances - Firmino and Salah are both doubtful with injury - might increase the Liverpool longing for a Suarez, the presence of Philippe Coutinho in a Barcelona jersey provokes a more complicated response.

Barcelona's Philippe Coutinho celebrates scoring his team's third goal against Manchester United in April. AFP
Barcelona's Philippe Coutinho celebrates scoring his team's third goal against Manchester United in April. AFP

Coutinho was far more recently a Red, sold for a fee well in excess of €100m in January 2018 when he, like Suarez, made it plain Barcelona was a transfer he wanted. It has not entirely lived up to expectation. Quite how content he is at his new home was put into stark perspective when, in the quarter-final win against Manchester United, Coutinho gestured towards the Camp Nou crowd with his fingers in his ears after scoring a fine goal. His point, he explained was that he ignores “his critics”, and wants “respect” from them.

On the pitch, Coutinho generally seem as understated as Suarez is pugnaciously demonstrative. Off it, there is a stubborn streak. His negotiations with Liverpool to push the transfer to Barcelona tested the relationship with his then employer and the fans.

His gesture after the goal against United hardly endeared him to Barcelonistas, either. Some booed him. Many debate Coutinho’s position in the first XI, whether he is the most ideal partner for Messi and Suarez at the top op a 4-3-3, or a multi-facted enough footballer for a midfield role.

Injury to Ousmane Dembele, the French winger, helps Coutinho’s case for starting the second leg, although, with a lead to protect, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde has been considering the option of a more rugged midfield, with Coutinho on the bench. He has spent more time sitting there than he hoped for as the costliest player in Barca’s history. Should he end up with a treble next month, he wants to be celebrating it, as Suarez will, from centre-stage.

Updated: May 6, 2019 12:23 PM

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