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Just how good is Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho?

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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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27-year-old Liverpool supporter from Ireland with a keen interest in Irish, English and European football. Been writing about football in either a personal or professional capacity since I was 12.

FA Cup

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham – Lucas Moura shines despite disappointing day for Spurs

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham

Tottenham are going to have to rely on a replay for the second successive round as they conceded a dramatic late equaliser to Rochdale. It was a reminder of the magic that the FA Cup still possesses and it will provide a useful cash injection for the League One club. Spurs opted to make several changes and rest key players, but they selected a team that should have progressed on the day.

Ian Henderson scored in the first-half to give Dale a first-half lead and it was deserved. Keith Hill’s team played good football and went toe-to-toe against their more illustrious opposition.

Lucas Moura and Harry Kane scored to put Tottenham into a 2-1 lead, but that wasn’t the end of the goal-scoring as Steve Davies scored to take the tie to a replay. Here are three talking points from Spotland:

Lucas Moura’s performance showed why Tottenham signed him

It was a signing that came out of left-field, as Tottenham prefer to do their transfer business in the summer. However, this opportunity was too good to turn down as they were given the chance to sign a proven Brazilian international. He had fallen on tough times at PSG and rarely featured this season, but he proved why the club signed him on Sunday.

The Brazilian wasn’t afraid of the fight and was up for the test offered by League One opposition. Every time he got on the ball, it looked like he could make something happen, as shown by his seven dribbles completed.

He had a touch of class that allowed him to stand out from the rest of the players on the pitch and if he can consistently perform at that level, he will turn out to be a great signing.

His movement was superb, as he regularly found pockets of space to exploit. Interestingly, he won five aerial duels and that shows that he has quickly adjusted to English football. It was Lucas that scored the equaliser mid-way through the second half with a confident finish. He will have played himself into Mauricio Pochettino’s plans for the coming weeks.

Rochdale impressed on their day in the spotlight

They were written off before a ball was kicked as they were facing one of the best teams in the country. Rochdale are currently rock-bottom of League One and 11 points from safety, albeit with four matches in hand. They laid a new pitch ahead of this match and the players adapted to it well, showing that they can play good football.

Callum Camps and Andrew Cannon impressed in the centre of the park, while their two wily experienced strikers got the goals. Ian Henderson was a tireless worker in the final third and put the Tottenham defenders under pressure.

He snatched at a couple of chances in the first-half, but he remained cool when another chance came his way and scored the opening goal.

It will be a tough ask for them to go to Wembley, but they can go there with no fear as they have nothing to lose. The tie will give them an injection of money that the club needs, especially if they are to suffer relegation this season.

Toby Alderweireld looks a long way from his best

The Tottenham defence didn’t look as assured as they usually do and both of their centre-backs struggled at times during the match.

Alderweireld was left out of the trip to Juventus and there were some supporters that questioned that decision. However, he looked short of match fitness against Rochdale and was arguably at fault for the late equaliser.

The Belgian international looked rusty and his decision making was not great. He picked up a yellow card for a rash tackle and that is one example of that. Juan Foyth played alongside Alderweireld and his inexperience showed when Rochdale did attack.

For Alderweireld, he wants to be back in the first-team and that is eventually where he will be, but he isn’t at the level required to be starting right now. Tottenham are fighting on multiple fronts and they can’t afford to have any players that aren’t at 100%. He is returning from a serious injury and he will need time to get back to his best.

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Liverpool

Roberto Firmino: His performances will shape the end to Liverpool’s season

Martyn Cooke

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On Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium the returning Virgil Van Dijk took centre stage and assumed the role of pantomime villain for the day.

However, whilst much of the pre-game build up was centred on the former Southampton defender, who was making his first return to the club since signing for Liverpool in January, the post-match conversations were focused on the brilliance of the Dutchman’s attacking teammate.

Roberto Firmino is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League and his performance last weekend reaffirmed that he is one of the most effective forward players in the top-flight of English football.

The Brazilian has rarely been the centre of attention since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2015 for £29 million and the media have often overlooked his significant contributions on the pitch.

Roberto Firmino

At Liverpool he has been forced to be content playing in the shadow of Philippe Coutinho, prior to his move to Barcelona, and Mohamed Salah, who has been a revelation since joining the club in the summer.

But Firmino is now emerging as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting forwards in the Premier League and he is undoubtedly one of the most improved players of the season.

The 26-year-old is both a creator and a goal scorer, as Southampton discovered to their cost at the weekend, when he opened the scoring with a neat finish within the opening six minutes before providing the assist for Salah’s goal with an ingenious flick.

The goal was his 20th of the campaign, which was shortly followed by his 21st of the season against Porto in the Reds’ midweek Champions League fixture, and he is now only nine short of becoming the Premier League’s all-time highest Brazilian goal scorer.

Firmino is a unique mixture of technical brilliance, creativity, innovation and an intelligence that makes him unpredictable, difficult to mark and a constant threat, regardless of where he pops up on the pitch.

However, whilst his Brazilian flair may catch the eye it is his willingness to pressurise opponents and work hard off the ball that is genuinely impressive.

He is certainly a favourite of Jurgen Klopp, who admires his hard running, work rate and pressing that often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

The 26-year-old has still gone somewhat unnoticed this campaign despite his consistency and performances on the pitch and the fact that he has missed only one league game all season.

But that is set to change.

Firmino’s performances and form have proven that there is still a bright future at Anfield despite the departure of Coutinho in January.

Deployed as an unconventional number nine, the Brazilian is the centre of a dynamic attacking forward line that sees him flanked by Salah on one side and Sadio Mane on the other.

The trio possess the pace, intelligence and creativity to threaten any team in Europe, as demonstrated by the mid-week five-goal demolition of Porto in the Champions League, and central to their effectiveness is the link up play of Firmino.

Still only 26, the Brazilian is about to reach the peak of his prowess and his continued development under Klopp poses the exciting question of how much better the forward might become in the forthcoming two or three years.

He certainly possesses all of the characteristics to become a legend at the club, should he choose to remain at Anfield long term, and he now has the opportunity to step out of Coutinho’s shadow and enjoy the limelight for himself.

Liverpool supporters will be hoping that Firmino can maintain his current run of form over the coming months and his performances will shape the club’s season.

His creativity and knack for scoring goals will be an invaluable commodity as Klopp goes in search of a top four place and potential silverware.

Firmino my have been underrated in the past, but he is now taking centre stage as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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