Barca superstars want Coutinho - and he's ready to serve as Iniesta's apprentice
Andres Iniesta isn't ready to be replaced quite yet, but it's time to start phasing him out. Pete Jenson explains why Liverpool fans should be worried.
Andres Iniesta gave a rare 90-minute masterclass at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night. His coach Luis Enrique likened him after the game to an artist making “the pitch his canvass”. He also said, somewhat cryptically: “He needs to participate in what it means to grow old at Barcelona.”
He's not going anywhere this summer despite still not having signed what will probably be his last contract at the club. But it is also clear that he has participated in fewer games this season than in previous campaigns and has increasingly become the luxury brought out for special occasions.
There have been too many injuries over the years for him to play 40 games a campaign – something he found it hard to do even at his peak. So now, more so than ever before, Barcelona are searching for what it would be sacrilegious to call the ‘new Iniesta’, so let’s just say: someone to play alongside him when he's there, and more importantly to play instead of him when he’s not.
Iniesta could not have done it any better, stepping inside on to his right foot and curling the ball past Joel Robles into the top corner. It's no surprise that the Brazilian tops Barcelona sporting director Robert Fernandez’s list of summer midfield signings and at Barca, where the players have more influence than at most clubs, Coutinho has two very important sponsors – Luis Suarez and Neymar.
Suarez counts Coutinho as one of his best friends in football from their time together at Anfield. The cul de sac where Suarez lived – having moved into Fernando Torres’ former home – was also where Lucas Leiva lived and it became the hub of off-the-field activity for the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Liverpool players of the era.
Liverpool, Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho (Reuters)Reuters
The famous picture of Suarez emerging from a supermarket with a trolley laden with fizzy drinks and booze was ahead of a garden party to which Coutinho was invited. The Brazilian had even gone to Costcutter to do the beer run with his pal. There was even the occasional game of Monopoly together. Wild times.
On the pitch the connection was just as strong. On route to so nearly winning the league in 2014, Coutinho’s goal against Manchester City was technically brilliant and crucial too. Suarez picked it out as his favourite of the season – the one he would like to have scored.
In his Crossing the Line autobiography he speaks about talking to the then 21-year-old Brazilian before the game, telling him to keep his head if he didn’t see the ball for spells of the game. Coutinho needs less mentoring these days and Suarez would love to have him on his side again, although he is unlikely to publicly pronounce it, such is his respect for Liverpool.
With no such qualms is Neymar, who has been petitioning for the signing all season to the point where you wonder if he isn’t doing it for a bet. Barcelona journalists were speculating on Wednesday that 'doing something for a bet' is behind his need to change his boots during the first half of every game, but that’s a conspiracy theory for another day.
“He would have a place in this Barcelona team,” said Neymar after the last international break. That place would be right behind Neymar on the right-hand side of midfield – the position that for so many years has been Iniesta’s.
Barcelona have pondered other alternatives. Mesut Ozil has still has not signed his Arsenal contract and has threatened to only do so if Arsene Wenger stays, a slightly odd stance before he knows who the new man would be. And Isco is close to the end of his deal at Real Madrid. Although Florentino Perez will do anything to avoid the Isco Disco rolling up at the Camp Nou next season.
Coutinho is a better fit than the other two anyway. All that remains is for the club to make it worth Liverpool’s while. Suggestions that Jurgen Klopp will happily take Arda Turan in some sort of part-exchange represents gloriously wishful thinking on Barcelona’s part. Turan’s last run of consistent form was over two years ago in an Atletico Madrid shirt and he may need to look east to China if he is to pick-up one last big pay-day.
Meanwhile back at Barca, Iniesta has already said he is not after any such pay-day. “I am not saying that I will not renew,” he said recently. “I have always said that I would love to retire here. But I will never be here just for the sake of being here.”
He wants to be useful. Alongside Coutinho he would get to paint a few more breathtaking canvasses and get acquainted with his apprentice before passing on the brushes for good in a few season’s time.