Aston Villa: Philippe Coutinho has returned to the Premier League, but is the magic still there?
Wednesday afternoon on Bodymoor Heath and the atmosphere around Aston Villa training was noticeably different.
Philippe Coutinho’s loan to the club has been greeted with interest and curiosity by outside observers, but inside the camp the only sense is excitement.
When the Brazilian got to work, under the keen eye of Villa’s coaching staff, enthusiasm quickly started to build.
Philippe Coutinho’s loan to Aston Villa has been greeted with interest and curiosity
Many of his new team-mates had finished their recovery sessions on the second day, following Monday’s FA Cup defeat at Old Trafford, but they were in no rush to leave. They preferred to stay put and watch Coutinho go effortlessly through the gears.
The tricks and flicks may have been easy on the eye, but what resonated most with Steven Gerrard’s squad was the fact that Coutinho was smiling throughout. After four years seemingly surrounded by clouds, was this the moment when the light returned?
It’s easy to forget the way Coutinho was discussed and the joy he brought. When he first joined Liverpool from Inter Milan nine years ago, he played under Brendan Rodgers with such creativity that Daniel Sturridge – one of the main beneficiaries of his ingenuity – referred to him as ‘David Blaine’.
Steven Gerrard’s (middle) side was defeated by Manchester United in the FA Cup on Monday
The Kop loved him so much that a banner was made to greet him O Magico. Jurgen Klopp was thrilled to inherit a player of his ability and there is a story, after a game at Crystal Palace in October 2016 that Liverpool won 4-2 when the German couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.
‘Coutinho!’ he kept saying as he greeted the crew at their old Melwood compound. “Coutinho… wow!” And he was a ‘wow’ footballer.
Gerrard was diabolically difficult to convince when judging others during his playing days, but if you got him into conversation about Coutinho, the tone of his voice always changed.
When he told you that the kid from Rio was special, you knew he meant it.
The current Villa boss praised Coutinho as special during their days together at Liverpool
The gloss around him was removed after his transfer to Barcelona in January 2018. Liverpool squeezed every last cent out of the Catalans, selling him for £146 million. The prize reflected his position in the game at the time, but it also became a curse.
There was a first promise. He and his wife, Aine, settled in the seaside town of Castelldefels, where Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi were neighbors.
He also fit on the pitch, never more than when Barca won the Copa del Rey and scored when Sevilla were beaten 5-0 in the final.
However, that match is best remembered for a glorious Andres Iniesta goal and Iniesta was in many ways Coutinho’s biggest problem. He had been called up to be Iniesta’s long-term replacement, but those demands weighed heavily on his shoulders through 2018/19.
Demands to replace Andres Iniesta (pictured) at the Nou Camp weighed heavily on the Brazilian
He avoided the perfect opportunity to win over fans when he let his pride take over in a Champions League quarter-final in the second game against Manchester United at the Nou Camp, after scoring the third goal – and a nice goal too – in a 3-0 win.
Yet there was no joy. He stood alone in the middle of the field, closing his eyes and sticking his fingers in his ears. This was a protest against the criticism he had received, but he made sure that it was that image, and not the goal, that would be shown repeatedly in the Spanish football debate shows.
The midfielder lost the chance to win over Barcelona fans
‘Great goal, ugly party’ shouted a headline in the influential local newspaper Diario Sport, and they quoted lip readers as saying he said: ‘Vai tomar no cu’ while putting his fingers in his ears – a Portuguese expression that translates to ‘f *** You’.
From here it looked like he was fighting a losing battle.
A lasting memory comes from the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in May 2019, when Barcelona defeated Liverpool 3-0. Coutinho was anonymous and ended up spending more time with his old teammates than with his current one.
It said it all that Barcelona happily loaned out the third most expensive signing in history that summer when he went to Bayern Munich. The perception is that he struggled, but those who have worked with him see it differently.
Saddled with that price tag, some members of the German media expected Coutinho to show up and score a hat-trick every game. The reality was different. He walked into a dressing room with huge characters and great players and was happy to blend in.
They remember him in Bavaria as ‘nice but shy’ and ‘no trouble at all’. He scored 11 goals – including two in Barcelona’s 8-2 skewer in the quarter-finals of the Champions League – in 38 appearances.
Coutinho scored 11 times and won the Champions League on a rental basis with Bayern Munich
He has won four trophies, including the biggest in the industry, Bayern beating Paris Saint-Germain 1-0 in Lisbon. Bayern may have sent him back to Spain, but the impression he made on the people at the club’s headquarters on Sabener Strasse was positive.
There were no questions about his attitude or his talent – the only reason he didn’t stay was that Barcelona wanted £100 million back and the prize was not feasible.
Back at Barcelona and with Messi gone, the feeling this season was that Coutinho’s time would finally come. But again, there was nothing but lingering frustration and little luck, the low coming last November at Celta Vigo.
When young attacker Ansu Fati had to come out just before half-time, caretaker coach Sergi Barjuan asked him to warm up.
Coutinho has spent a lot of time on the bench for Barca this season, making just five LaLiga starts
There was a perceived lack of urgency as he climbed off the couch and no change was made. They waited until halftime and instead put in 18-year-old fullback Alejandro Balde.
There were reports that a senior Barcelona player protested his stance afterwards – something Coutinho vehemently denied – but the writing was on the wall.
With new coach Xavi sending the team in a different direction, Coutinho had to leave.
New coach Xavi sends Barcelona in a different direction meaning Coutinho had to leave
Despite being miserable for him in Barcelona, the reaction to Coutinho who showed up in Birmingham shows that he still has the potential to become a cashier. All eyes will be on him when Villa hosts Manchester United tonight. There won’t be a spectacular deal in the rest of the window, mainly because of the characters involved.
The power and influence Gerrard has had over this deal really shouldn’t be underestimated. Coutinho had been in awe of him when he showed up in Liverpool, as he vividly remembers one evening in Istanbul in 2005 when he saw him lift the Champions League trophy.
Coutinho, who watched Villa’s match on his iPad in Paris on Monday after completing his visa application, then wanted to impress Gerrard every day and will now.
The big question is whether the magic is still there. Those who saw him on Wednesday are adamant, the answer is yes.