Wednesday afternoon At Bodymoor Heath, the atmosphere around the Aston Villa training was markedly different.
Philippe Coutinho’s loan to the club was met with interest and curiosity from outside observers, but inside the camp the only feeling was excitement.
When the Brazilian got to work, and under the eye of Villa’s coaching staff, the enthusiasm began building rapidly.
Philippe Coutinho’s loan (pictured) to Aston Villa has been met with interest and curiosity
Several of his new teammates finished their recovery sessions on the second day, after Monday’s FA Cup defeat at Old Trafford, but they were in no hurry to leave. They preferred to stay put and watch as Coutinho began to shift easily between gears.
The tricks and flicks may be easy on the eye but the thing that resonated the most with Steven Gerrard’s side was the fact that Coutinho was smiling the whole time. After four years seemingly shrouded in clouds, is this the moment when the light is back?
It’s easy to forget the way Coutinho was once discussed and the joy he brought. When he first joined Liverpool nine years ago from Inter Milan, he played with such creativity under Brendan Rodgers that Daniel Sturridge – one of the main beneficiaries of his prowess – dubbed him ‘David Blaine’.
Steven Gerrard’s side (centre) was defeated by Manchester United in the FA Cup on Monday
Cup loved him so much that a banner was created to salute him, Magico. Jurgen Klopp was in a state of euphoria to inherit a player of his abilities and there is a story, after a match at Crystal Palace in October 2016 won by Liverpool 4-2, when the German could not contain his enthusiasm.
“Coutinho!” He kept saying, as he greeted the team at the old Melwood complex. “Coutinho…wow!” He was a “wonderful” football player.
Gerrard, during his playing days, was very hard to beat when judging others, but when I made him talk about Coutinho, his tone of voice always changed.
When I told you that boy from Rio was special, you knew he meant it.
The current Villa boss praised Coutinho as special during their days together at Liverpool
The shine around him was removed after his move to Barcelona in January 2018. Liverpool took every last penny from the Catalans, selling him for £146m. The price reflects his place in the game at the time, but it has also become a curse.
There was an initial promise. He and his wife, Ayn, settled in the beach town of Castelldefels, where their neighbors Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi were.
He adapted on the pitch as well, not so much as when Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, scoring a goal as they crushed Sevilla 5-0 in the final.
However, what we remember best that match was Andres Iniesta’s superb goal and Iniesta was, in many ways, Coutinho’s biggest problem. He was recruited to be Iniesta’s long-term replacement, but these demands weighed heavily on him during 2018-2019.
The demands to replace Andres Iniesta (pictured) at the Nou Camp weighed heavily on the Brazilian
He turned down the perfect opportunity to win the crowd when he allowed his pride to overwhelm him in the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Manchester United at the Nou Camp, after scoring the third goal – also a beautiful one – in a 3-0 win.
Yet there was no joy. He stood alone in the middle of the field, closed his eyes and tucked his fingers into his ears. This was in protest of the criticism he had received, but he emphasized that it was that image, not the target, that would appear over and over on Spain’s football debate programmes.
The midfielder rejected the opportunity to win over the Barcelona fans
‘Fantastic goal, ugly celebration’ shrieked a headline in influential local newspaper Diario Sport and cited lip readers who claimed he said ‘Vai tomar no cu’ as he put his fingers in his ears – a Portuguese phrase that amounts to ‘f*** you’.
From here, he seemed to be fighting a losing battle.
A timeless memory comes from the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in May 2019, when Barcelona beat Liverpool 3-0. Coutinho was anonymous and ultimately, spent more time with his old teammates than his current teammates.
He said it all that Barcelona was happy to loan the third most expensive deal in history that summer when he went to Bayern Munich. The perception is that he struggled but those who worked with him see it differently.
Because of this price, some members of the German media expected Coutinho to turn up and score a hat-trick in every match. The reality was different. He walked into the dressing room with huge figures and big players and was happy to mingle.
They remember him in Bavaria as “nice but shy” and “no problem at all”. He scored 11 goals – two of them in the 8-2 Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona – in 38 matches.
Coutinho scored 11 goals and won the Champions League with Bayern Munich on loan
He won four titles, including the biggest in the business world, Bayern’s 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain in Lisbon. Bayern may have brought him back to Spain, but the impression he made on those at the club’s headquarters on Sabener Strasse was positive.
There were no inquiries about his attitude or talent – the only reason he didn’t stay was because Barcelona wanted £100m back and the price wasn’t possible.
Back in Barcelona and with Messi gone, the feeling this season was that Coutinho’s time might finally come. Once again, though, there was constant frustration and a bit of happiness, the lowest point coming out at Celta Vigo last November.
When young striker Ansu Fati had to leave just before the end of the first half, interim coach Sergey Barguan asked him to warm up.
Coutinho has spent much of this season on the bench with Barcelona, making only five La Liga appearances
There was a noticeable lack of urgency as he got off the bench and no change was made. They waited until halftime and instead put in 18-year-old full-back Alejandro Balde.
There were reports of a senior Barcelona player protesting with him afterwards over his stance – something Coutinho vehemently denied – but the writing was on the wall.
With new coach Xavi leading the team in a different direction, Coutinho was forced to leave.
New coach Xavi is taking Barcelona in a different direction which means Coutinho has to leave
Despite it all being miserable for him in Barcelona, the reaction to Coutinho’s attendance at Birmingham shows he still holds the potential to become a box office hit. All eyes will be on him when Villa host Manchester United this evening. There wouldn’t be a more exciting deal in the rest of the window, mainly due to the characters involved.
The power and influence of Gerrard on this deal is not to be underestimated. Coutinho was in awe of him when he appeared in Liverpool, as he vividly remembers one night in Istanbul in 2005, when he watched him lift the Champions League trophy.
Coutinho, who watched Monday’s Villa game on his iPad in Paris after completing his visa application, wanted to impress Gerrard every day at the time, and now it will be.
The big question is whether the magic still exists. Those who saw him on Wednesday insist that the answer is yes.