Philippe Coutinho receives possession just outside the penalty area, works the ball on to his right foot… and Liverpool fans know exactly what happens next.
The 26-year-old delivered a series of spectacular strikes during a highly successful five-year stint at Anfield from 2013. But now, after serving the latest reminder of his shooting skills with a wonderful goal against Manchester United in the Champions League quarter-finals, it is his former club who could be on the receiving end of the Brazilian’s magic in Wednesday’s semi-final first leg.
But one big question has to be answered first: will the forward, signed for £142m in January 2018, even play?
On and off the bench
If this semi-final tie had been staged a couple of months ago, there is no doubt Coutinho would have started on
A poor start to the season soon saw him lose his place, falling behind speedy French forward Ousmane Dembele in manager Ernesto Valverde’s pecking order.
Coutinho only made one start in La Liga between early November and mid-January, and he played no part in the first leg of his team’s last-16 Champions League tie against Lyon as rumours spread that Barca were preparing to offload him.
In March, though, Coutinho was given a reprieve when Dembele suffered a hamstring injury, meaning he was only an unused substitute for the first leg of their quarter-final against United.
Bright performances during Dembele’s month-long absence allowed Coutinho to keep his place ahead of the fit-again Frenchman for the second leg against United.
That saw the Brazilian cap one of his best displays in a Blaugrana jersey with the final goal in his team’s 4-0 aggregate win, expertly whipping the ball past David de Gea and into the top right corner from 25 yards.
With that goal, it looked as if Coutinho was finally starting to feel comfortable alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in the Barca forward line, suggesting he could yet convert his talent into meaningful end product on a consistent basis.
It had been a long time coming. Coutinho produced a few bursts of excellence during his first year in Spain, but they were vastly outnumbered by listless performances marked by poor decisions on the ball and an inability to regularly influence play.
Ever since he joined Barca, Coutinho has faced questions. Was he signed to replace Neymar, or to replace Andres Iniesta? Is he a winger, or is he a midfielder?
So far he has rarely looked comfortable in either role, too keen to drift inside to pose a wide threat and too errant on the ball to keep possession ticking over in midfield. In short, he has looked lost.
The strong performance and brilliant goal against United, then, was a sign of a man belatedly heading in the right direction. But Coutinho then immediately shot himself in the foot, celebrating with a petty reaction…
‘A gross gesture’
As the ball flew past De Gea and struck the back of the net, Coutinho was engulfed by his team-mates and accepted their congratulations. Then he turned to the crowd and stuck a finger in each ear, a provocative gesture clearly intended to tell his critics: “I’m not listening.”
He later claimed the celebration was aimed at the media, describing it as “liberating”, but many Barca fans did not appreciate such antagonism from a player who has seriously tested their patience, and he was jeered during the team’s next game, a home win over Real Sociedad.
The mood was summed up by an article in local paper Sport, whose editor Ernest Folch fumed: “He had the opportunity to strengthen his recuperation but decided to spoil a great night with a gross gesture.
“It was unfair because during months of performances well below the minimum level expected of him, he has been respected, supported and protected.
“What he should have done is run to the sidelines and embrace Valverde, who has continued to pick him despite his poor performances. He made a serious error by grabbing too much attention on a night which should have been reserved for celebrating a place in the semi-finals.”
Barca boss Valverde is too pragmatic to allow his selection decisions to be swayed by feisty opinion pieces in the local press.
But in the relentlessly pressured world of FC Barcelona, Coutinho’s petulant reaction threw him into the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
So when his next chance in a big game comes along, Coutinho will still have plenty to prove.
Coutinho or Dembele: a straight choice?
|Coutinho v Dembele in La Liga & Champions League 2018-19|
|La Liga||CL||La Liga||CL|
|Shot conversion rate||8.06%||10%||21.05%||18.75%|
Since the last-eight victory over United, Valverde has used his team’s comfortable position in La Liga – the title was secured by Saturday’s home win over Levante – to rotate through the full range of options in his squad.
Perhaps the biggest clue over his selection plans for Wednesday’s meeting with Liverpool came during the weekend win over Levante, when Coutinho delivered a strong first-half performance and was then replaced by Lionel Messi, suggesting he was being rested so he is in top condition to start against his former club.
Valverde’s decision will depend partly on how he wants the game to unfold, because Dembele and Coutinho offer very different attributes.
The former Liverpool man is a more technical player, with a better ability – when he is playing well as he did on Saturday – to maintain possession in congested areas, and possessing a selfless approach to his combination play with Messi, Suarez and overlapping full-back Jordi Alba.
Dembele is more of an individualist, boasting bags of trickery on the ball as well as a real eye for goal, along with electric pace which gives Barca a counter-attacking option badly lacking when Messi, Suarez and Coutinho comprise the forward line.
So Valverde seems to face a straight choice: control with Coutinho, or penetration with Dembele. He can, of course, opt for a bit of both, starting with Coutinho before bringing on Dembele midway through the second half, when opposing legs start to tire and more space opens up.
There’s also a chance that neither will start, as Valverde could bolster his midfield with veteran street-fighter Arturo Vidal, young technician Carles Alena or all-rounder Sergi Roberto, all of whom have performed well enough to earn a starting role (the latter could also be selected at right-back).
That formula – with Messi and Suarez in attack ahead of a narrow midfield four in a cautious 4-4-2 formation – could be employed for the return leg at Anfield, but in the home leg Valverde is likely to prefer a more attacking approach, with either Dembele or Coutinho to start.
And with Coutinho showing a marked improvement in form while Dembele is still regaining his rhythm after a month on the sidelines, Liverpool will probably have to face their former star on Wednesday.
It could be a make-or-break occasion in determining Coutinho’s longer-term future at the club, and a great opportunity for him to win over the doubters – as long as he doesn’t stick his fingers in his ears again.