Staying at Liverpool is true test of Coutinho’s mettle

Date published: Thursday 7th September 2017 1:35

‘I think they recognised after all that had happened – the suspension, the wanting to leave, doing an interview to say as much, and all the problems those things had caused – I was still capable of working hard, playing well and scoring goals. I think they appreciated that. I also think they had always known that.

‘It was one of the reasons they were so convinced that it was right to fight to keep hold of me: they knew I was never going to sulk or not give 100 per cent. They knew that once I crossed that line, I would do everything I could to win. It isn’t in my character to stop running or down tools.’

Brendan Rodgers clearly had unstinting belief not just in himself but in the character and focus of Luis Suarez, despite the Uruguayan very publicly embarrassing him and showing disrespect to his club. Could Jurgen Klopp say the same about Philippe Coutinho, who has already come close to downing tools with a back injury that miraculously cured itself in time for international duty? Could he be certain that the Brazilian will neither sulk nor give less than 100 per cent after his transfer request resulted in little more than tremendous ill-feeling?

Like ‘modern slave’ Ronaldo before him, Suarez reacted to the disappointment of being denied a transfer by simply continuing to be the excellent player that had made him a target for the best clubs in the world. It is not only what elite footballers should do; their competitive excellence gives them no choice.

Pride, professionalism and pure ego are as much a part of being a world-class footballer as vision and technical excellence. If you are dedicated and focused enough to play for Barcelona or Real Madrid, you should be dedicated and focused enough to play brilliantly for Liverpool while you wait.

We are about to find out whether Coutinho belongs in that bracket. The next few weeks will be a test of Klopp’s ability to re-integrate and re-motivate a player who has not hidden his desire to leave – after all, there is little point turning down vast sums of money if you cannot utilise your asset – but the greatest test lies ahead of the Brazilian. It’s not only how you handle the pressure of moving to Barcelona that denotes you worthy of the shirt, but how you react to the disappointment of not moving to Barcelona.

“I am completely focused, I know what I want to do and what I have to do. My mind is centred on what happens on the pitch which I enjoy,” said Cesc Fabregas in 2010 after a summer had passed without a dream return to Barcelona. “If I could not play football then I may worry, but while I still can here or wherever I can say I am happy. I am at a great club, in a great team and I want to do the best and have a great year.”

Fabregas did indeed have a great year for Arsenal and Barcelona were waiting at the end of that great year, as impressed with his attitude as his 11 Premier League assists. The Spaniard was and remains a wonderful footballer and there were few at Arsenal who begrudged him his return to Barcelona after he retained his focus in the face of disappointment.

Will we be saying the same about Coutinho this time next season? And will we be talking about Coutinho as a £150m Barcelona player who proved his name should be mentioned in the same sentence as Suarez and Lionel Messi, or as the very good but not-quite-elite Liverpool player who was once somehow deemed to be worth £100m, and didn’t we all know Sadio Mane was the better player anyway?

Very little of Coutinho’s on-field persona exudes the street-fighter of Suarez or Alexis Sanchez; it is far harder to imagine one of football’s quieter men shaking off his “sadness” (as per Neymar), crossing the line and being focused solely on victory. But if he wants to be regarded (and paid) alongside players of that calibre, he must show previously unseen character and give Liverpool the very best he has. That he will most likely have to do so from central midfield only adds an extra layer of intrigue.

Coutinho might not care a jot what Graeme Souness or even Liverpool fans think, but the world – including Barcelona – will quite rightly judge him on his strength through adversity. Behind the magic, is there the beating heart of a born winner?

Sarah Winterburn

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