Football: Liverpool bank on Coutinho and samba magic

Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho celebrating his goal, his fifth in all competitions, against the Saints on Saturday. A win at Sevilla today will guarantee a last-16 Champions League spot.
Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho celebrating his goal, his fifth in all competitions, against the Saints on Saturday. A win at Sevilla today will guarantee a last-16 Champions League spot.PHOTO: REUTERS

Revitalised Coutinho key as Group E leaders seek win in Sevilla to seal round-of-16 berth

LONDON • Philippe Coutinho's long-term future might lie away from Liverpool, but the Brazil star's ability to focus on the present has helped heal the wounds from his flirtation with Barcelona.

When Jurgen Klopp's side travel to Sevilla for a crucial Champions League clash today, they will rely on Coutinho to lead their bid to get the win that would book their place in the last 16.

For Coutinho to be at the centre of Liverpool's season is a fitting testament to the peace-making skills of Klopp and the forward's refusal to let his failed attempt to force a move to Barcelona make him public enemy No. 1 on Merseyside.

Three months ago, Coutinho's relationship with his club and their fans was damaged after he handed in a transfer request while Barca tried to convince Liverpool to sell their prize asset with bids rising to over £100 million (S$180 million).

Liverpool's American owners were adamant Coutinho was not for sale, prompting mutterings from the 25-year-old's camp that he was angry with the decision.

Klopp cleverly kept both his employers and the player happy by toeing the company line without criticising Coutinho.

When he finally returned to action after an injury-hit start to the season, Coutinho repaid his manager for his diplomacy.

On a red-hot streak of late, Coutinho bagged his fifth goal of the season in Liverpool's 3-0 win over Southampton on Saturday.

It was Coutinho's fifth strike in his last seven appearances, but his value to Liverpool is measured in more than just goals.

When Coutinho first arrived at Anfield after his £8.5 million move from Inter Milan in 2013, he believed he was in danger of being pigeon-holed as solely a playmaker.

Quickly adjusting to the unique demands of the frenetic Premier League, Coutinho realised it was important to work on the defensive side of his game.

He also focused on developing a more nuanced understanding of how to thrive in a team structure rather than playing on instinct alone. He said: "I have grown immensely since I've been here.

"I have become stronger here in every way. Every year, I've felt like I've taken more on and become better, not only with football but life in general.

"I have never wanted to settle because I know that improvement is something that doesn't stop. I'm happy with how much I've grown, but I'm not finished yet."

Coutinho could eventually leave Anfield, most likely at the end of the season if Barca return with another mega-money offer.

But for now, with Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah also in blistering form, having scored a league-leading ninth goal on Saturday, Klopp can call on two transcendent talents in Seville as Liverpool face the toughest test of their Group E campaign.

Goalkeeper Loris Karius, however, has said that the Reds - who lead the group by just one point ahead of Sevilla - are focusing on simply winning the game instead of thinking about progressing to the next round.

"I'm not sure if qualifying is on our mind," the German told Liverpoolfc.com.

"You just know you want to win the game. They will probably be a strong team to face away. The group is really tight so it will be a tough game. Hopefully, we get three points."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEVILLA V LIVERPOOL

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'Reds bank on samba magic'. Print Edition | Subscribe