By Connor Varnish – @cvarn4
Liverpool are dining amongst European’s elite yet again.
The Reds’ next date in the Champions League involves a clash with Spanish giants Barcelona in the semi-finals this Wednesday. The European finalists of last year will travel to Barcelona for the first leg next and will host the Catalan side back at Anfield on the 7th of May.
With hopes of a 19th league title looking increasingly tough as the weeks progress, Jurgen Klopp will certainly have his squad fired up for this meeting between two of the biggest clubs in the world – and as if Liverpool needed any additional motivation, we’ll see an Anfield return for two former Reds in Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho in the return leg.
While the South Americans were both undoubtedly adored by millions during their time in a red shirt, the duo could be in for a rough afternoon upon their return to Merseyside as they now don the blue and garnet of Barcelona.
Both players left on far from ideal terms with the club and supporters. Let’s start with Liverpool’s former El Pistolero, Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan was coming off what quite possibly could be the best season I’ve ever seen a Liverpool striker have in a red shirt. Of course, it all had to come crashing down in flames as he intentionally bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellieni in the 2014 World Cup which ultimately forced Liverpool’s hand in selling him for a cut-rate £75 million in the same summer.
It hurt at the time, but in hindsight, could you really blame Suarez for wanting to leave? Hearing rivals and pundits alike label the Reds a “one man team” really riled up Liverpool fans as many, myself included, thought we were on the fringes of a return to the big time, i.e. competing for domestic as well as European glory.
Wrong. It turns out Fergie was unfortunately right when he said Liverpool we’re eight players shy of becoming genuine title contenders. With all due respect to the following players, Suarez must’ve looked around at the likes of Simon Mignolet, Mamadou Sakho, Aly Cissokho, Joe Allen, Iago Aspas, Victor Moses (shall I continue?), and thought “yeah, Barca doesn’t sound too bad right about now.”
Liverpool’s fire power rested in the hands of an injury prone Daniel Sturridge, an ageing Steven Gerrard, and two kids in Raheem Sterling and a certain Philippe Coutinho – we we’re more like nine players off being title contenders.
The case of Phil Coutinho is almost the polar opposite of his current teammate Suarez. Barcelona links emerged in early in the 2016/17 campaign, but they didn’t seem wholesome just yet as even Liverpool supporters agreed the little magician wasn’t quite consistent or mature enough to make the move to Camp Nou.
Suarez left when he was undoubtedly the best striker on the planet, we couldn’t let Coutinho leave Anfield just yet as he was still learning to perfect his craft. The summer of 2017 proved to us all that Philippe Coutinho was in fact ready to make the move to Spain, as the number ten allegedly faked an injury prior to a crucial Champions League qualifier against Hoffenheim in attempts to wrap up a transfer with the Catalan side – to no avail. Jurgen Klopp kept hold of the Brazilian as long as he could, but Coutinho eventually got his move as the January transfer window opened up while the Reds recouped nearly £150 million for him.
In contrast to Suarez’ departure, as the Uruguayan left a Liverpool side already in disarray, Philippe Coutinho left a seemingly thriving, youthful, and as we’d find out as the rest of the 2017/18 campaign unfolded, he left one of the best teams in the world.
This team was, and still is, set up wonderfully for the Brazilian to become an Anfield legend. In recent history when Liverpool stars have left the club they’ve gone on to clubs in better standing in terms of winning silverware upon arrival – the likes of Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres, Suarez and Xabi Alonso to name a few all left for better opportunities to win trophies instantly.
Coutinho’s case was different. Why swap Anfield for a now ageing Barcelona side? Why leave just as Jurgen Klopp has built a side capable of challenging on all fronts? We’ve built the most lethal attack in Europe anchored by the world’s best defender, why leave now, Phil? There’s so many questions left unanswered as the Brazilian left Liverpool and perhaps we’ll never have the answers to them.
I expect Coutinho to receive a hostile reception at Anfield, and arguably deservedly so. He left in circumstances that left the fans feeling betrayed – that Liverpool were going somewhere and his exit almost ripped that to pieces. Had the money from his transfer not been reinvested so astutely in Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, the departure of the Brazilian could have had a serious detrimental impact on the progress Jurgen Klopp has made.
Whether Suarez receives the same treatment is another matter. He left in less acrimonious circumstances, yet keeping the talented Uruguayan would have prevented the subsequent spiral Liverpool found themselves in when he left. One thing is certain though – Suarez and Coutinho are no longer ours. Their legacy is well and truly in the past, and even though we are looking to the future, it’s important to show them on the pitch what they are both missing out on.
This is the best Liverpool side I’ve ever seen and these two aren’t part of this story anymore. We’ve got trophies to win – and I’m looking forward to expelling all this ‘what if’ talk in regards to how our former South American stars would have fared had they stayed on board for the cause.