Of the 10 fixtures across the opening weekend of the 2015/16 Premier League season, none had a more intriguing pre-game narrative than Stoke v Liverpool, with memories being cast back a mere 77 days to the last time this fixture was played. The freakish final score of 6-1 put the seal on what was a dismal season for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool, who came into last Sunday’s rematch with plenty of questions to answer.
After all that was written and said in the lead-up to Sunday, the match itself was the footballing equivalent of Father Paul Stone, the moustachioed, horrendously unsociable, monosyllabic priest from the timeless classic that is Father Ted. A Stoke team with high hopes ahead of their eighth Premier League season looked like the Stoke who first ‘graced’ this league in 2008 – no shortage of endeavour but carving out precious few chances. Liverpool, meanwhile, were as stale and one-dimensional as throughout last season, with £32million striker Christian Benteke a peripheral figure. For 85 minutes, this was about as dull as sport gets.
Then Joe Gomez, having a solid if unspectacular Liverpool debut, fed Philippe Coutinho, who was facing away from goal. The Brazilian was unperturbed by a Steve Sidwell challenge and turned towards the Stoke goal, unleashing a 30-yard drive which Jack Butland tried to keep out but had no hope of doing so. In a heartbeat, an afternoon that was dark as Liverpool’s change kit had been illuminated by the magic of the visitors’ number 10.
On reflection, it came as no surprise that if one man was going to lift this match out of the ordinary, it was Coutinho. Admittedly he was having one of his quieter afternoons up to that point, having almost blasted a shot over and out of the Britannia Stadium just minutes before he did find the net, but of the 27 players who did feature across the 90 minutes, he was the most likely to conjure a magical moment. His sumptuous strike is nothing new, as supporters of Bolton, Southampton and Manchester City will tell you from six months ago when Coutinho crackers were even more regular than Watford managerial sackings.
It would be remiss to think of him as a mere wonder goal machine, though. The Brazilian is, by some distance, the most gifted player in the current Liverpool squad. He would not look out of place in any Premier League team, he is that good. His bamboozling of opposition defenders is reminiscent of Eden Hazard and David Silva, two players who are routinely praised by media observers, and rightly so. Coutinho, for whatever reason, just doesn’t seem to draw the same level of admiration from the general public. Maybe it’s because, for all his undoubted talent, the inferiority around him prevents him from inspiring his team to be classified among the top four in the country.
Brendan Rodgers’ transfer record has come under intense scrutiny in the three years that he has had access to the Anfield war chest, and considering how many of his signings have subsequently left Merseyside with their tails between their legs, criticism of the Irishman’s judgement is fair. However, the lapses of Fabio Borini, Iago Aspas, Aly Cissokho and Mario Balotelli seem much more forgivable when you think back to January 2013, when Rodgers parted with £8.5million of Liverpool’s money to acquire Coutinho from Inter Milan. From the off, the Brazilian, then only 20, was a hit at Anfield. Forget the settling in period for this South American youngster; he and Liverpool hit it off from day one.
Let me revisit that transfer fee again. £8.5million. That’s less than Fulham paid for Ross McCormack from Leeds in a transfer between two Championship clubs. It’s not even one-seventh of the fee Manchester United stumped up for Angel di Maria a year ago, a player who had a fruitful honeymoon period in England before losing his form dramatically. It’s just over half of what Rodgers forked out for Balotelli, a player so embarrassingly unproductive that he became a source of comedy for other clubs’ supporters. Or how about this: Coutinho cost Liverpool less than 20% of what Mesut Ozil cost Arsenal. Inter Milan would be within their rights to report the Merseyside club to Interpol for daylight robbery.
When Steven Gerrard played his final game in the red shirt three months ago, many wondered just how much would Liverpool miss their iconic former captain. A player of Gerrard’s commitment, passion and ability does not have a carbon copy replacement, but in terms of someone who could win a game with one sweeping strike from absolutely nowhere, Coutinho picks up very nicely where the hero of Huyton left off. The Brazilian might not dominate matches in the same way as, say, Andrea Pirlo, but when his team-mates manage to supply him with the ball, Coutinho can wreak havoc. Right now, Liverpool don’t have any other player with such instant match-winning ability, and for all the summer wrangling over Raheem Sterling, it is remarkable that no other club, either in the Premier League or continental Europe, has made a serious effort to lure Coutinho from Anfield. He has proven on a consistent basis that he would be good enough to fit seamlessly into a Champions League outfit, which Liverpool are not now and are unlikely to be for at least another two years. As a Liverpool fan, I am quite happy for the big European hitters to focus their attention on other players, as it means Coutinho can continue to work his magic in red. Assuming he keeps up his magnificent form throughout the course of this season, however, I find it hard to envisage him not becoming a coveted asset for the Chelseas, Man Citys, Bayern Munichs and Juventuses of this world.
Another hugely likeable factor about the Brazilian is his attitude to the game. In nearly three years with Liverpool and beforehand with Inter, Coutinho was never in the headlines for the wrong reasons. He is known only for what he does on the pitch, his social life kept very much under the carpet. He is a genuine team player, as evidenced by how jubilantly his team-mates celebrate his goals with him, and isn’t one for histrionics or immature moaning. He is exactly the kind of player that any manager would love to have, and to give Rodgers his due, he recognises the extent of Coutinho’s importance to Liverpool. Should the Reds exceed expectations and finish no lower than fourth, it is most unlikely that their number 10 will not have played a starring role. The only trouble then is that, like Luis Suarez and Sterling before him, Coutinho might have outgrown Liverpool, a scenario which is all the more probable should the Reds fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League. For that reason, I will savour every moment he plays in a red shirt, because his genius makes Liverpool worth watching, even when those around him flatter to deceive as footballers.
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