Task for Barcelona's Philippe Coutinho is to master el clasico
Scrutiny over Brazilian's modest ratio of goals will die down if he can help secure safe passage past Real Madrid in Copa del Rey
A year ago this week, Philippe Coutinho scored his first goal for Barcelona, stretching to meet, on the volley, a Luis Suarez cross away at Valencia.
The goal unlocked a contest stuck stubbornly at 0-0. Coutinho had been involved in the game for barely three minutes, on as a half-time substitute. It was the second leg of a tight Copa del Rey semi-final, and Coutinho’s volley effectively ensured Barca’s progress to the final.
In short, he had maximum impact in minimum time. And having arrived at the club in the winter transfer window, he only made his debut a few days earlier, in the last week of January.
He looked suitably gleeful at opening his scoring account, and of playing a part in bringing Barca a step closer to one of the three trophies he accumulated in their colours by the end of August.
Coutinho, who had won no club trophies for the previous seven years of his career, went on to score seven goals and assist in five in Barca’s run to the 2017/18 Primera Liga title. He scored one and set up another in the handsome 5-0 win in the Copa del Rey final, too, against Sevilla.
He was not eligible for Barca in last season’s Uefa Champions League campaign because he had already played for Liverpool in the competition. So he was freed of any blame for the one disappointing thread of an otherwise successful six months for the club. It was 'bravos' all round for the little Brazilian.
A year on, as he prepares for his second 'gran clasico' against Real Madrid, Coutinho has a more developed sense of the weighty expectations, and some of the unforgiving perspectives from which he is judged as a Barcelona star.
First and foremost, he is the most expensive footballer ever purchased by the club, at more than €160 million (Dh671.4m). There is no evidence that Coutinho anxiously feels the weight of that fee as he lines up each curling shot from the edge of the penalty area, but it is the kind of price tag that does not easily vanish.
He will be judged against it for a long time to come.
Second, there is a pressure that comes from his own expectations. Joining Barcelona was Coutinho’s dream move.
He pushed hard to make the transfer from Liverpool happen, applying a hardball posture in negotiations with the English club that seemed at odds with his low-key, benevolent demeanour and was certainly not designed to enhance his popularity with those Anfield loyalists who had come to cherish him over his five years there.
But the fact is, rancour on Merseyside about his departure has faded very quickly. Coutinho was not indispensable, it seems.
Liverpool are indisputably a stronger team now than 13 or 14 months back. And the Coutinho fee covered the costs of hiring Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson to make Liverpool a more balanced and more effective team.
When Coutinho played his last match for Liverpool, they were tussling for a top four place in the Premier League; they now joust for its leadership. They also promptly reached their first Champions League final for more than a decade without him.
So much for the scenarios that Coutinho swapped last January. More important are the ones he inherited. In some respects he was given impossible targets: to both replace Neymar, whose leaving for Paris in the summer of 2017 had rocked Barcelona, and to prepare to replace Andres Iniesta, the club hero who was to leave in the summer of 2018.
The idea that he could be thought capable of both tasks is a tribute to Coutinho’s many assets; the dual designation, though, meant he became the subject of an unsolved debate: Is he better as part of a three-man forward line, alongside Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, or deeper, on the left or right of a midfield three?
Mostly, he has played in advanced positions. Hence the scrutiny on his modest ratio of goals: just five in the Primera Liga so far this term, none of them since he came back from a two-week injury lay-off in November.
“The goals are one aspect, but there’s much more, and I like the way he is always positive, always taking people on,” Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde said of Coutinho.
The Copa del Rey has been more fruitful for the Brazilian lately. Coutinho scored twice - one from a penalty that Messi invited him to take - as Barcelona erased a first-leg deficit to beat Sevilla 6-1 in the last round and earned their place in Wednesday night’s high-profile semi-final with Real Madrid.
This is the fixture in which, as Coutinho knows, every Barcelona player’s performance is judged most forensically. Master the clasico, and any awkward questions about how smoothly he fits in will quieten down.
Updated: February 6, 2019 08:51 AM