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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 March 2019

Barcelona's Philippe Coutinho and Manchester United's Alexis Sanchez: A tale of two struggling stars

Sanchez watched as Barcelona's win against Rayo Vallecano failed to mask Coutinho's struggles at Camp Nou

Philippe Coutinho and Alexis Sanchez, two of the highest-remunerated footballers in world football, were both at Camp Nou on Saturday evening as Barcelona came from behind to beat struggling Rayo Vallecano 3-1.

Barca are seven points clear of Atletico Madrid and 15 clear of Real Madrid with 11 games to play. A seventh title in 10 years looks highly probable, but this side are not yet considered a vintage one and no player raises more questions than Coutinho.

He was selected for this match – to some surprise given his mediocre form. Meanwhile, former player Sanchez watched from the stands in the city he called home from 2011 to 2014.

Sanchez did well at Camp Nou, but not well enough for the Catalans to keep him after a large offer from Arsenal which would help finance the Luis Suarez deal.

Sanchez and Coutinho have both shown they are prodigiously talented footballers for sustained periods in their careers. But now they are both having their worst year as professionals.

Manchester United's Alexis Sanchez reacts after sustaining an injury. The former Barcelona star ha struggled at Old Trafford this season. Carl Recine / Reuters
Manchester United's Alexis Sanchez reacts after sustaining an injury. The former Barcelona star ha struggled at Old Trafford this season. Carl Recine / Reuters

Coutinho, the third-most expensive player in football history behind Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, is struggling at Barca. The 26-year-old who finally joined from Liverpool in January 2018 for €145 million (nearly Dh600m), has not scored a league goal and had provided only one assist in four-and-a-half months.

That is 14 games, although he did score twice in the 6-1 cup demolition of Sevilla on January 30. When he arrived from England he settled quickly, scoring eight times in the final four months of the season, but there has been a marked change for the worst.

When Barca played Real Madrid three times recently, the Catalan club’s record signing was on the bench twice and started once. Just as the Manchester United officials who made Sanchez their best-paid player still want the Chilean to come good, so Barca will stick with Coutinho for now.

Their coaches have worked closely with him and switched their format to a classic 4-3-3 where Coutinho can play across the front three or behind, but it is not happening for him. So far, he has proved he is no Andres Iniesta, whom he was bought to replace.

Ousmane Dembele, another hugely expensive post-Neymar signing whose inconsistency at the start of the season raised doubts, has since done much better and now starts in Barca’s biggest games. They have one on Wednesday, a Uefa Champions League second-leg match against Lyon, with the first leg having finished 0-0 in France.

United are still in the Champions League, too, but Sanchez is injured again. He will be out for up to eight weeks, meaning he will have no part to play in the last eight games.

If Coutinho was hoping to return to form against Rayo, it did not happen. Former Real Madrid player Raul de Tomas put Rayo ahead with a screamer after 25 minutes, the goal coming from a counter attack after Coutinho had missed a fine chance following a Messi dummy.

Gerard Pique, who is playing superbly, headed the equaliser 13 minutes later. A Messi penalty made it 2-1.

Both Coutinho and Sanchez could have a very interesting conversation about their relationship with Messi. Both were bought to supply Messi with balls, both did, but let us not pretend that anyone is best friends here.

Coutinho was substituted for Ivan Rakitic with 11 minutes to go. He was applauded but did not look delighted with his lot. Rakitic was given a much better reception by the 74,158 crowd. That is what fans do, they respond to form.

Philippe Coutinho, left, was replaced by Barcelona teammate Ivan Rakitic during the game against Rayo Vallecano. Albert Gea / Reuters
Philippe Coutinho, left, was replaced by Barcelona teammate Ivan Rakitic during the game against Rayo Vallecano. Albert Gea / Reuters

Suarez, whose form seems to be improving, scored 30 seconds later, a goal set up by Rakitic whose name was chanted loudly by the crowd.

“Coutinho is Arda Turan without a beard,” was the unkind verdict of one veteran Barca journalist, referring to the Turkish player who made little impact while at Camp Nou from 2015 to 2018.

It is a shame but maybe it is only a blip.

Publicly and as expected, his teammates are prepared to support him too. “Coutinho is having a good season, but the cost of his signing brought high expectations,” Pique said in his defence.

Asked about derogatory whistles directed toward Coutinho, whistles this writer did not hear, Pique said: “People’s reaction has to be accepted but we, as teammates, must give him all our support because we need him at the highest level.”

“We always try to help him,” Nelson Semedo added. “Coutinho is going through a phase all players have been through some time during their career, and we’ll continue to help him.”

Sanchez will likely have to wait until next season, but Coutinho still has the opportunity as Barca’s season reaches its climax, to show what he can do.

Updated: March 10, 2019 10:18 AM

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