Sunday 22 September 2019

Why Liverpool believe they can keep hold of Coutinho - even if Barcelona come calling

Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Sam Wallace

In a supporters' Q&A at Anfield this month, shortly after Liverpool had returned from a bonding trip to Spain where they watched Barcelona play Borussia Monchengladbach, Jürgen Klopp was asked how long before his team could compete with the greatest club side of the era. Those present said Klopp was blunt in his response.

The weakened Barcelona team that had played the dead-rubber Champions League group match?

Klopp said his Liverpool side would have beaten them, even though Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta were in the team.

What if Neymar and Luis Suarez were added?

The Liverpool manager was bullish. Let us have a go at them and see what happens, was the tone of his answer.

In private Klopp is understood to believe European football is changing, and gradually enough that many have not spotted the subtle shifts he says he can see.

The big two in Spain and Bayern Munich, between them winners of the last four editions of the Champions League and six of the previous eight, are not, he believes, as far ahead of the rest as might once have been the case, and who knows where that trend could go in the years to come.

It is a pertinent question for Liverpool, whom Klopp naturally sees very much as one of those on the up, and also for the future of arguably their biggest star, Philippe Coutinho.

He has not played since November 26 and is unlikely to be fit for Saturday's game against Manchester City, but over Christmas it felt like a campaign was starting, the sound of distant drums playing a familiar tune.

It was Ronaldinho, Coutinho's fellow Brazilian, and icon of Barcelona's first great 21st-century team, who offered the opinion, in his role as an ambassador for his old club, that Barca had "a lot of admiration" for Liverpool's No 10.

Perhaps Ronaldinho was innocently responding to a request for his view on the matter, although we have seen enough of these pre-emptive strikes over the years to suspect otherwise.

It poses an interesting challenge for Klopp and Liverpool's owners, Fenway Sports Group.

How do a club outside the elite keep their top player? Especially if he happens to be non-British, when the call of Barcelona or Real Madrid has traditionally been so irresistible.

That may be the case, although it is never too late to challenge a convention.

If it is about playing in the Champions League, then that is something Liverpool have within their control.

If it is about money then Liverpool believe their position in the world's wealthiest league means they can compete with anyone.

They offered a bigger deal, for example, than Arsenal did to Alexis Sanchez in 2014, but he decided he wanted to play in London.

Will money be decisive?

Liverpool made Suarez their highest-paid player in December 2013, and he left for Barcelona the following summer.

Coutinho is well paid, although not the club's highest earner, and has three seasons after this on his contract, which in theory puts Liverpool in a strong position.

But every club knows that when the momentum is against them - as it was in Liverpool's case with Suarez after the summer of 2013, a contract does not make much difference.

Instead, if Barcelona pursue Coutinho seriously it will come down to what vision Klopp can sell the player.

At different times both Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have been unable to prevent their best players leaving for Spain, so what can Liverpool's manager do differently?

Klopp's starting point will be that European football is changing. The Premier League has been through remarkable vicissitude in recent years - Leicester City's title triumph, the plummeting form of Manchester United, Chelsea's risible 2015-16 title defence.

Why not European football, too?

Klopp is firmly of the opinion that, if Borussia Dortmund's resources had permitted him to keep together his side who had reached the 2013 Champions League final, they would have dominated the competition for the next few years.

That is a big wish, of course, and at Liverpool the predatory instincts of clubs with a bigger recent history are also a danger, albeit less of a threat than they were to Klopp's Dortmund.

Klopp chose the Liverpool job on the basis that success there would have a proportionately bigger effect than at more established recent title-winners.

It was the same at Dortmund, where he won the seventh and eighth league titles in their history, and one barely needs to describe the effect that winning Liverpool's 19th league title would have, 26 years and counting after the last.

If push came to shove, could he convince Coutinho that the 19th title at Anfield is worth more than the 25th or 26th at Barcelona?

He will certainly try to do so, and being able to point to his own career, and the occasions that he turned down Bayern and other established powers, will give him greater credibility.

The sell at Liverpool is that Coutinho could be the main man in a title-winning team, and were he to do so then he would be part of a team destined to be remembered as men who had done something remarkable. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport