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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Willian could hold key to Tottenham landing Anthony Martial
If Manchester United land the Brazilian it would undoubtedly improve Tottenham’s chances.
Manchester United are reportedly preparing a £60 million bid to bring Chelsea winger Willian to Old Trafford this summer, according to reports from the Daily Mail, with manager Jose Mourinho having been linked with an approach for his former star for some time.
Chelsea were unwilling to sell at that time, but it is possible that Willian could be interested in a new challenge after apparently growing frustrated with life at Stamford Bridge, according to recent reports from Sky Sports. He managed a combined 25 goals and assists in 55 appearances in 2017/18, but only 20 of his 37 Premier League outings actually came as a starter.
Tottenham meanwhile, have become frustrated at United’s assertion that Anthony Martial will not be sold this summer (Sky Sports), after Mauricio Pochettino made the Frenchman his priority target last month (the Sun), as he looks to bolster the supply line to Harry Kane next term.
However, Martial’s revelation that he wants to leave the club could be vital for Spurs, as Mourinho has previously stated that he would never stop a player from moving if they really want the move and the money is right. And he’s backed up his words, selling two-time Chelsea Player of the Year Juan Mata to his current club in 2014.
The Red Devils are currently stacked in terms of depth for the left wing, with Marcus Rashford struggling to start games over January signing Alexis Sanchez, but wide-right is somewhat scarce and Willian would undoubtedly improve United’s balance for the better.
Although the manager would prefer the Frenchman went abroad, if he asked for the move to north London, Willian’s transfer to United would undoubtedly improve Pochettino’s chances of securing his key man. United will also be buoyed by their recent business with the west Londoners, having surprisingly secured the signing of Nemanja Matic from Stamford Bridge last summer.
Gylfi Sigurdsson shows why Everton splashed £45m on his services
Everton fans will hope they see Sigurdsson in fine form next season.
Iceland pulled off another shock at a major tournament, as they managed to hold out for a draw against Argentina. Alfred Finnbogason scored the equaliser after Sergio Aguero had given the Albiceleste the lead. Lionel Messi then saw a penalty saved as Iceland fully deserved a share of the spoils.
One man who was in sensational form throughout the game was Everton midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson. Only recently returned from a knee injury he was the beacon of quality that Iceland needed. When they needed a player to keep possession he was there and he was a constant thorn in the side of Argentina’s defensive generals.
It was a performance that will remind Everton fans just why they spent £45 million to bring him from Swansea City last summer. It also highlighted that, used correctly. The ‘Iceman’ could be Everton’s talisman.
When Sigurdsson arrived last season he did so at the same time as two identical players. Davy Klaassen and Wayne Rooney also joined Everton last summer leaving them overbooked in that area of the field.
With Everton failing to bring in sufficient wide options, Sigurdsson also found himself playing wide left for much of his time at Goodison Park.
What is clear from the Iceland game is that Sigurdsson is best in the number 10 role, playing off of the front-man and hopefully next season that is where Everton will see him. With Cenk Tosun ahead of him, pace out wide and reliable generals behind him in midfield the Icelander will be free to roam and play his best football.
If Everton do that, then they will see more and more of the real Sigurdsson next season.
Chicharito shows he’s capable of replacing Marko Arnautovic at West Ham in brilliant Mexico performance
The striker was unrecognisable from last season at West Ham.
West Ham United striker Marko Arnautovic is still heavily linked with a move to Manchester United, although the club have attempted to deter interest by slapping a whopping £60 million price tag on the Austrian, according to the Daily Star.
Although the price is considerable, it’s conceivable United could match the fee, or something close and Manuel Pellegrini may have to begin lining up replacements, in case a switch to Old Trafford materialises. But the Chilean coach may very well have his man already on yesterday’s evidence, ironically, in the form of former United fan favourite, Chicharito.
Chicharito made a name for himself throughout his career for his impressive ability to improvise a finish in the penalty area, and his movement, which has led to countless poacher goals. However, his performance for Mexico yesterday could indicate a change of responsibilities for the striker in the future. And West Ham will be thrilled.
Against Germany, he did everything but put the ball away. Non-initiated viewers may have been shocked to find out that the striker went into the match one goal off a career tally of 50 for his country, as he plied for the 90 minutes as a forward linch-pin, connecting play in the final third for almost every counter-attack. His general touch, awareness of approaching defenders, vision to see runners and execution of passes were all sensational on the night.
It could be argued that his national pride conjured this new style. but now there can be no doubting he has the ability to play the Arnautovic-type role, and in emphatic fashion. And if Pellegrini can tap-into this style, he could already have the Austrian’s ready made replacement at the London Stadium.
Last term the 30-year-old struggled to break into the team on a regular basis under David Moyes, making 33 appearances in all competitions, bagging eight goals and an assist, but his contribution next year could be far more valuable.
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