Saturday 24 August 2019

Nou Camp old boys gunning for Reds

Luis Suárez and Philippe Coutinho made their names at Anfield, now they give Barcelona the edge

Luis Suarez. Photo: Getty
Luis Suarez. Photo: Getty

Paul Wilson

Liverpool will cost themselves some money should they reach the Champions League final at Barcelona's expense - one of the add-ons to Philippe Coutinho's transfer fee of £105m just over a year ago was an extra £4.5m should the Catalans win the event this season.

Financial considerations apart, it should be quite the reunion when Jürgen Klopp's side arrive at the Camp Nou on Wednesday. Liverpool were not only responsible for showcasing Coutinho's talents in a manner that made him irresistible to Barcelona, they did exactly the same with Luis Suárez four years earlier, again making an impressive profit on a player they signed relatively cheaply. Suárez cost Liverpool £22.8m in January 2011, hilariously arriving at the same time as the club spent almost twice as much to purchase Andy Carroll.

That transaction alone makes it clear that Liverpool's recruitment system is not quite the surefire investment scheme that Barcelona's current forward line suggests, as in fact does Coutinho's form in Spain, for despite his splendid goal against Manchester United last week the Brazilian has not been a total success at his new club.

Chelsea are believed to be lining him up as a possible replacement for Eden Hazard and Barcelona would be willing to sell, the only complication to a deal that would suit all parties being the awkward fact that the London club are operating under a Fifa transfer embargo.

Coutinho is a wonderful player who in theory would improve any club's attacking options, though perhaps unsurprisingly he has failed to stand out alongside Lionel Messi and Suárez and no longer appears to be considered a satisfactory replacement for Neymar. That said, there is still time for Coutinho to win over his new public, and helping Barcelona advance to a Champions League final at the expense of his former club would be one way to do it.

That Liverpool are on the verge of a second successive Champions League final is a great credit to the club considering the talent they have parted with in recent years - not just Suárez and Coutinho but Raheem Sterling to Manchester City - and although Klopp has spent the proceeds well enough it is tempting to wonder what strides he might have made had these players remained at his disposal.

Just briefly in the 2013-14 season Suárez, Coutinho and Sterling played together at Anfield along with Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge in what was potentially the most potent Liverpool side assembled in the Premier League era. Potentially, because Liverpool were unable to hang on to their key performers, though they did give City a run for their money in the league that season until Gerrard's infamous slip against Chelsea, and in February 2014 they scared the life out of Arsenal in an unforgettable 5-1 victory at Anfield.

Arsène Wenger's side arrived on Merseyside as league leaders but were four goals down after 20 minutes. It could have been even worse: Suárez had seen a stunning volley come back off a post. Long before the interval the visitors were simply cowering in their own half, afraid to come out and play because of the damage Suárez, Sterling and Coutinho had shown they could inflict.

A combination of Arsenal's timidity and Liverpool conserving energy was all that kept the score reasonable - had the whole game been played as urgently as the first half-hour double figures might have been on the cards. "Some of our play was breathtaking," Brendan Rodgers said, on this occasion without exaggeration.

Yet Suárez had already expressed dissatisfaction over the lack of Champions League football that season and would be gone by July, the club pocketing £65m despite the biting furore that blew up at the 2014 World Cup. Sterling left for City a year later, and within a few months Rodgers was gone after completing three seasons at Anfield without winning a trophy. Coutinho remained, to be greatly admired and effectively deployed by Klopp, before bowing to the inevitable and a nine-figure sum at the start of last year.

The fab four that Liverpool formerly boasted at the front of their team has become the terrific three, with Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah virtual ever-presents and regular goalscorers, though arguably the key reinforcements Klopp has made have been in defence, where Virgil van Dijk looks a snip at £75m, full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have just made the PFA team of the season and Alisson has corrected a longstanding weakness in goal.

While Barcelona still possess the attacking edge, mainly because Suárez is so reliable and because there is just no legislating for what Messi is capable of doing in big matches, Klopp's team ethic tends to show itself most clearly on European nights. City's exit at home to Tottenham demonstrated the importance of an away goal in a first leg and Liverpool are unlikely to abandon their usual pressing and counterattacking game, though just this once they would probably not mind Barcelona being dazzled by one or more of their defenders.

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