Coutinho must live up to cost, legacy of Barca's Brazilians
By JOSEPH WILSON
Jan. 07, 2018
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Philippe Coutinho arrives at Barcelona bearing both his huge price tag and the legacy of the long line of Brazilian stars who have dazzled at Camp Nou.
The comparisons will be constant with Neymar, whose world-record move to Paris Saint-Germain in August provided Barcelona with the up to 160 million euros ($192 million) it needed to acquire Coutinho at a cost that would have seemed ludicrous just six months before. Only Neymar and PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe surpass it.
But while Neymar, as before him Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Romario, all became fan favorites by starring in Barcelona's attack, Coutinho will have to measure up to the Spanish club's long line of top-notch — and largely homegrown — midfielders.
The 25-year-old Coutinho comes to Spain charged with the daunting task of one day taking over as its midfield leader with Andres Iniesta entering the twilight of his career at age 33.
Coutinho can count on the big advantage of setting up Lionel Messi for goals as he strives to justify the club-record fee Barcelona agreed to pay on Saturday, when it finally pried him away from Liverpool after the English club had refused to let him go in the summer.
Even though coach Ernesto Valverde has successfully kept Barcelona winning after predictions of decline abounded following the unwanted departure of Neymar, Coutinho will greatly increase his options in a midfield that is still heavily reliant on Iniesta for its playmaking spark.
His signing signals Barcelona's intention to refocus on the patch of the pitch that has defined its passing style for decades, an emphasis that had slipped somewhat in recent years with Neymar, Messi and Luis Suarez forming a powerful attack, albeit sometimes at the expense of its ability to dominate possession.
Suarez, who played with Coutinho at Liverpool when it finished second in England in 2013-14, praised the addition.
"As a teammate and a friend, I'm very happy. I think he will help our team a lot," Suarez said on Sunday after scoring in a 3-0 win over Levante. "He has spent several years playing at an elite level, and we will try to help him settle in quickly, since changing teams isn't easy. He has a profile that can fit well with this team."
Since the exits of Xavi Hernandez 2 1/2 years ago, and those of Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara, Barcelona was in danger of seeing its lineage of great midfielders broken.
Coutinho showed at Liverpool that he can play anywhere in midfield: in a more attacking role, as a wide player in a four-man line, or deeper to help start the attack. That versatility will help ensure him a place in a Barcelona midfield that has a set group of first-choice players in Iniesta on the left, Ivan Rakitic on the right, and Sergio Busquets in a defensive role, but little else.
Coutinho, who has the vision and quick passing skills that Barcelona needs, can also provide goals with his accurate strike from distance. He scored 41 times in 152 Premier League appearances for Liverpool, including seven in 14 matches in the first half of this campaign.
"He is a player that can play both on the wings and in the middle of the pitch, and we will try to take advantage of that versatility," Valverde said on Sunday. "It is an important signing."
With Coutinho set to feature, Barcelona will likely part ways with one or more of midfielders Andre Gomes, Arda Turan, Rafinha and Denis Suarez.
Barcelona has also recently seen the return of summer signing Ousmane Dembele — for a then-club record fee of 105 million euros plus add-ons that could take the total to 147 million euros — from a tendon injury that had sidelined him since September.
Dembele would likely need to play in a 4-3-3 alongside Messi and Suarez, while Coutinho could play on the right side of a midfield line with Iniesta and Busquets.
But Valverde has also gotten good results this year— including a 3-0 victory at Real Madrid last month— with just Messi and Suarez in attack and a four-man midfield including Paulinho, who has given the team goals and added muscle since his arrival in the offseason.
Valverde will have to use different lineups regardless, because Coutinho will be limited to playing in the Spanish league, which Barcelona leads, and the Copa del Rey for the remainder of this season. Coutinho cannot play for another team in the Champions League after participating in the group stage with Liverpool.
He will then have five more seasons under the contract he has agreed to sign to help Barcelona win a sixth European Cup.
AP Sports Writer Steve Douglas in Manchester, England, contributed to this report.