Philippe Coutinho has finally come in from the cold at Liverpool
The classy Brazilian may be struggling with the British weather but he is warming plenty of hearts at Anfield after a stuttering start to his career
Sunday 07 April 2013
The Scouse girls posing for photos outside the Jolly Miller pub on Friday, all dolled up for Aintree's Ladies' Day, appeared impervious to the unseasonal chill, but for the young Brazilian seated in the media room at Liverpool's nearby Melwood training ground it will clearly take some getting used to.
Philippe Coutinho has known cold Milanese winters, but the biting wind here is something else. "It's completely different from Brazil, the wind here is really strong and cold," says the £8.5 million January recruit from Internazionale. "I tell my friends in Brazil and some of them, when they come over, cannot believe how cold it is."
Arsène Wenger once made the point that the wind in this country is a fundamental impediment to honing technique – owing to the need for players to keep moving – but thankfully it has not stopped Coutinho from showcasing his qualities, despite his quibble.
With his mop of curls, slender build and easy smile, the 20-year-old from Rio de Janeiro could pass for a foreign-exchange student; on the pitch, though, he has looked every inch the Brazilian footballer, his nimble feet and eye for a pass proving instrumental in Liverpool's late push for Europe, providing two goals and three assists in his five League starts, which have yielded four victories.
"On the ball, he's a genius," was the verdict of the former Anfield striker John Aldridge in his Liverpool Echo column last week after Sunday's comeback victory at Aston Villa, sparked by Coutinho's defence-splitting pass for Jordan Henderson's equaliser. If Luis Suarez is Liverpool's dark knight, they may have just found their boy wonder in the new No 10.
Coutinho was named Liverpool's player of the month for March, and the early signs suggest he could be ready to fulfil the promise that led to Real Madrid being reported for making an illegal approach for him when a schoolboy at Vasco da Gama. Instead, Inter brought him to Europe in 2010, yet his opportunities proved limited and he spent half of last season playing under Mauricio Pochettino, now Southampton's manager, at Espanyol.
After three Serie A starts this season Inter offloaded him as a cost-cutting measure, and Coutinho is now relishing his weekly involvement with Brendan Rodgers's Liverpool. "I want to learn as much as possible here and develop in my career," he says.
He jokes about bulking up in the weights room and improving his heading – fresh from losing a Brazil v Uruguay game of head tennis, he admits he has never scored with his head ("It is an ambition!"). But his immediate task is to complete his adjustment to the perpetual motion of the Premier League.
"English football is much more intense. It was not so bad when I went to Italy, but when I came here it was quite difficult for me to get into the rhythm of the game.
"There were a few occasions when I was quite slow and [Steven Gerrard] came up to me and asked me to be much quicker with the ball."
A similar instruction has come from his manager. "He always asks me to improve on my marking of opposition players and apply more intensity and play with more pace," Coutinho explains.
It is interesting to hear that Rodgers speaks to him in Spanish, a language he understands from his Espanyol loan, underlining how far we have come since the days when Ricky Villa, newly arrived at Tottenham, would meet a Spanish-speaking priest simply for conversation. By contrast, Coutinho, happily installed in Fabio Aurelio's old house with his wife and their two pugs, Mel and Will, has a sizeable South American contingent at the club for support. "Lucas [Leiva] has been a big friend to me, like a father. Not only him but all the players who speak Spanish."
Crucially, with Suarez he appears to have struck up an understanding that goes beyond words. "Suarez is an excellent player and he is always on the move, he never stays still. And when you have the ball it is much better for you to have a player like that, because you can open the defence much more easily when the player is always moving."
Coutinho provides his own attacking threat. "I play on the left and then come in," says the youngster, who developed his deftness of touch playing the kind of small-sided games that the Football Association will belatedly introduce to youth football in this country from the 2014-15 season. "I played futsal from the age of six. When I was seven I went to Vasco da Gama, playing futsal until I was 11, and then I moved to the [football] field. When you play futsal it is more technical, much quicker and the [pitch] is smaller and the pace higher, so you need to be a highly technical player. That helped me a lot."
His star soon rose and he featured in Brazil's 2011 Under-20 World Cup triumph alongside Chelsea's Oscar. His wish is to add to his solitary senior cap, won in 2010, and he hopes that shining for Liverpool will open the door to Luiz Felipe Scolari's squad for next summer's home World Cup. "If you're doing well in Europe, in a big league like the Premier League, the chances are higher you'll be called up than in any other league." For now, though, with West Ham at Anfield today, Europe is the goal. "It is very important for the club to get to Europe and we will do all we can in the games left to get the maximum points to achieve at least the lowest Europa League place," he adds, eyes set on the home straight.
Liverpool v West Ham is today, kick-off 1.30pm
Wizened of Oz: Qatar switch for Kewell
The former Leeds and Liverpool winger Harry Kewell has put on hold plans to find a new club in England and joined Al Gharafa of Qatar on a short-term deal until the end of their season.
That will only run into May if Al Gharafa reach the AFC Champions' League knockout stage. But the 34-year-old former Australia international – now a midfielder – was in contention to make his debut in today's Qatar Stars League match against Al Sadd.
The golden boy of Australia's golden generation left Galatasaray and returned to play Down Under in 2011, but had been without a club since leaving Melbourne Victory at the end of last year's A-League season for family reasons.
Many expected him to return to the A-League, with Perth Glory apparently interested in bringing him back, while he had also been hopeful of finding a club in England last summer.
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