Coutinho has to repay Messi’s favour this season

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Philippe Coutinho’s time at Barcelona may finally have come, almost two years after he joined from Liverpool as the Catalan club’s most expensive ever player.

There are three reasons for the wind-change in his favour:

Watching him contribute to Bayern Munich’s Treble served as a reminder of what attracted Barcelona to him when they signed him for a deal totalling £145million in 2018.

His role in Bayern’s clean sweep probably shouldn’t be exaggerated. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said: ‘With his creativity and excellent technical ability he has helped drive the team’s play in a year when we have won the Treble.’ But the German team had not seen enough to want to negotiate buying him permanently.

And it’s also true that his role in the Champions League success was as a substitute, enjoying, in particular, the disaster minutes against Barcelona when they just wanted the final whistle to be blown. But he still had to take advantage of the opportunity and he certainly did that with two goals against his parent club.

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And the lasting image is of him celebrating in Lisbon, smiling broadly on the tickertape-strewn pitch with his hands on the European Cup.

He walks back into the Barcelona dressing room a lot taller than if he had returned from Bayern without a medal.

Koeman has made all the right noises about his return. He wants to use him and with the squad chronically top-heavy (eight players for three attacking berths) he sees an opening in midfield.

Barcelona cannot make big signings this summer. Lost in the haze of them keeping Messi has been their dire financial predicament. Even Koeman’s fairly modest requests for Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay depend on players being shifted out for transfer fees first.

Part of Koeman’s remit is to do something about that embarrassing €400m (£367m) trio of Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann.

He needs to make them the success stories they were at Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid. He is determined to do that and, in particular with Coutinho and Griezmann, he believes changing their positions slightly will help him achieve it.

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Coutinho was sold to Barcelona as a long-term replacement for Andres Iniesta so this is not so much plan B as going back to plan A.

When Koeman plays a 4-3-3 he will employ a holding midfielder and a powerful runner who can drop in alongside the holder when Barcelona don’t have the ball, and then spring out when they do. And that leaves a third spot for a more creative spirit.

One obstacle to it being a success is the lack of warmth for Coutinho from the supporters – many of whom would rather see homegrown talent Riqui Puig get his break.

But the global pandemic has emptied stadiums across Europe and in Spain there are no suggestions that any spectators will be able to get back inside grounds at least before next February.

Coutinho probably still thinks from time to time about his brilliant goal against Manchester United in his second season when his top-corner curler ought to have won hearts and minds at the Nou Camp.

Instead of celebrating with joy he chose to use the moment to show his displeasure standing still in the middle of the pitch, closing his eyes and sticking his fingers in his ears.

‘Great goal, ugly celebration’ was the headline in Barcelona paper ‘Diario Sport’ the next day and they cited lip readers claiming he said: ‘Vai a tomar no cu’ as he put his fingers in his ears – a Portuguese phrase tantamount to ‘f*** you’.

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Not celebrating that goal with supporters no matter that there had been some whistles for him in previous games was a mistake. The empty arena might not be the worst of all worlds as the 28-year-old returns.

Lionel Messi stood up for Coutinho in one post-match interview when he had been jeered: ‘We have to be together. It is not the moment to criticise anybody,’ he said when asked about whistles for Coutinho.

He added: ‘It is ugly that they give a team-mate that sort of treatment.’

Messi is still at the club to welcome him back and will be out to form new understandings now that the telepathic one he had with Luis Suarez has gone.

Alongside Messi, in an empty Nou Camp, with Koeman committed to making him a Barcelona success, and with the Champions League winners medal safely in the trophy cabinet, Coutinho must sense that his moment to really arrive at Barcelona has finally come.


#NobleSports

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