Heart Of Football

Deja vu as gifted Coutinho provides a fillip to club and country

When Philippe Coutinho is on song for Liverpool, I have flashbacks.

He brings the calm delicacy of the Brazilian to the hurly burly of the Premier League. He brightens a dark, wet English night with the vision of a goal, such as the one he scored in the Merseyside derby against Everton last weekend.

Or the masterpiece he netted three nights earlier against Paraguay in Sao Paulo to set Brazil on their way to World Cup qualification.

The distance from Sao Paulo to Liverpool is 9,526 km. The climates are a world apart, and the time difference four hours. Coutinho needed split seconds to show his world-class wares in both places.

And what was remarkable was that the goals came out of nothing but imagination. They were finished off with his left foot in the Corinthians Stadium, and his right foot at Anfield.

Let me put some meat on the bones (although there is not too much on the slender, 1.71m Coutinho). Against Paraguay, he started on the right wing. He danced towards two opponents and, barely seeming to look, he rolled the ball to Paulinho.

Coutinho (above) 

Paulinho, who now plays in the Chinese league, knew that ball was loaned, not given. He back-heeled it straight into the path of Coutinho who, in the blink of an eye, curled his shot low inside the far post beyond the goalkeeper.

A flight, a few hours' sleep and change of venue to the Mersey, and Coutinho did it all again. But he did it from the opposite side of the pitch, sliding past one Everton lunge on the left, drawing two more opponents, and caressing his shot, right-footed, high into the top corner of bar and post.

"Philippe demonstrated his credentials as a player worthy of 'world-class' status," observed Jurgen Klopp, his manager at Liverpool.

"And I'm not referring to the goal, which was a moment of beauty. I mean his all-round performance, sacrificing himself for the team - working as hard defensively as he did offensively.

"Okay, so the goal was nice, but as a coach and manager it's the entire performance you judge and this was a player fighting and battling for his team.

"For him and Roberto (Firmino) I can only say how impressive this was when you factor in the week previous, with their travelling and involvement for the national team. Attitude to mirror their ability - good combination."

Sadly for Klopp and for Liverpool, Coutinho has a virus and missed yesterday's match at Stoke. Sad because, while the Reds are by no means a one-man side, the recent winter has shown that when Phil Coutinho is down with something, Liverpool lose their magic.

For his national team, Coutinho alongside Neymar and Paulinho and, when fit, young Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City have begun to express themselves like . . .
yes, like the fabulous Brazilians of 1970. 

He missed seven games in January, and Liverpool's title hopes disappeared with that absence. They took another knock when Sadio Mane, the fastest man in Senegal, tore a knee cartilage against Everton that probably ended his season.

But I said I have flashbacks watching Coutinho. Those happen in Brazil yellow or Liverpool red.

For his national team, Coutinho alongside Neymar and Paulinho and, when fit, young Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City have begun to express themselves like... yes, like the fabulous Brazilians of 1970.

Okay, that is taking things a bit far. Pele and Co. won the World Cup, but the current Brazil have a long way to develop to do that in Russia in 2018.

Yet we can dream because, after sacking the disastrously dull Dunga and hiring Tite, Brazil's record has been: Played nine, won nine, scored 25, conceded two.

Coutinho, however, gives me flashbacks in another dimension.

I first saw him when Inter Milan signed him from Vasco da Gama for around S$6 million in 2010. The Italians could see the future. They signed a boy of 16 who they could not play until he was 18, so loaned him back to Vasco.

But in three years of ownership, Inter failed to understand how to integrate a homesick boy from Mangueira, a favela or shanty town within sight of the famous Maracana.

Sure, the Italians understood enough to house the Coutinho family near Milan. But with coaches like Jose Mourinho and then Rafael Benitez inclined towards proven players rather than fledglings, Coutinho barely got a chance to acclimatise on the field.

Inter shipped him out to Espanyol on loan where, under the wing of Mauricio Pochettino as coach, Coutinho grew in body and in heart. "You have magic in your feet," Pochettino (now the Tottenham manager) told him, "enjoy it."

Pochettino was surprised that Coutinho also had a tremendous work ethic. The Espanyol coach dared to compare him to Ronaldinho or Lionel Messi, which makes it even more surprising that Inter sold him to Liverpool for less than S$15 million in 2013.

Rumour has it that the other club in Catalonia - Barcelona - could bid for Coutinho in May. They would need to pay a fortune, maybe seven times what Liverpool paid, even to tempt the American owners at Anfield.

And Klopp has tried to cover that speculation by persuading his little Brazilian to sign a new five-year contract two months ago.

But I have flashbacks, not premonitions.

Further back, much further, there was a grey October day in 1995 on England's north east coast. That was when Middlesbrough signed a Brazilian, Osvaldo Giroldo Junior - known simply as Juninho Paulista.

He stood 1.64m. He shivered in frost. He looked like Tom Thumb in football boots.

The skinny Brazilian in heavily industrial Middlesbrough turned back the clock for locals who recalled Wilf Mannion, their hero from 1936 to 1954.

Mannion had ballet in his boots. Folks there never saw his like, until they set eyes on Juninho.

Now 44, the little Brazilian from humble Sao Paulo stock, beguiled Middlesbrough in two long spells. He, like Coutinho, was far more than a striker.

When Coutinho last week equalled Juninho's tally of 29 English Premier League goals, the flashbacks came again. Coutinho will go on to set his own records. What talent, what a player, and what comparisons he rekindles.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Deja vu as gifted Coutinho provides a fillip to club and country'. Print Edition | Subscribe