Dubai: When Barcelona take to the field at Anfield tonight as Barcelona take on Liverpool in their Champions League semi-final second leg, there will be much more than a place in the Madrid final at stake for Philippe Coutinho.
The Brazilian midfielder returns to his former club with the Catalan side holding a 3-0 advantage from the first leg and should start against the Reds due Ousmane Dembele’s injury.
Coutinho traded Merseyside for Catalonia amid much fanfare and a whole lot of money in January last year, but while his teammates Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez have thrived up front, the Brazilian struggled to settle and his inconsistent form has led to calls from some sections of the Barca supports to get rid of him in the summer.
Now Coutinho is in need of a return to form that made him a firm favourite at Liverpool in an effort to win back the Barca fans whom he enraged by sticking his fingers in his ears after scoring against Manchester United in the last Champions League round, indicating that they should shut up. He failed to endear himself to them in the first leg, where his poor passing led to jeers instead of cheers.
Coach Ernesto Valverde has stood by Coutinho during the lean periods and clearly trusts his talent to come good, but he was the one who had to make way for another defender when Liverpool ramped up the pressure in the second half at Camp Nou.
The difference to Barca’s play was immediate and Messi took control of the game and the tie when his late double whammy floored the visitors.
Luckily, Coutinho will get another chance on Tuesday, as Dembele injured his right leg on Saturday in a 2-0 loss at Celta Vigo.
He really needs to take it.
Valverde rested all 11 players that started in Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Liverpool in the first leg of the semi-final last week, but the injury to Dembele is a blow.
Valverde will hope to have Dembele back for the Copa del Rey final against Valencia on May 25 in Seville, as well as a potential Champions League final on June 1 in Madrid.
Dembele missed almost four months with a hamstring strain last season and suffered from problems in the same area in January and March, sitting out for another month each time.
“We think it’s a muscle tear,” said Valverde. “It is not from fatigue — he didn’t play much against Liverpool — and it is not the same leg as last time. It’s just one of those things. He is an important player for us and it would be a blow to lose him for what remains of the season.”
Liverpool defender Andy Robertson is determined the Reds won’t give up against Barcelona.
“We are always ready to get on the pitch and make a difference,” he said. “The lads who have been left at home and lads who are on the bench and haven’t come on, they are buzzing for us. There’s no egos in this squad and that’s why we are where we are today and long may it continue.”
However, with Roberto Firmino and Mohammad Salah to miss out the return leg, few would give Liverpool any hope of overhauling a three-goal deficit without two of their prolific front three. Firmino ruled out due to a groin injury, while the Egyptian was stretchered off with a head knock as Liverpool edged out Newcastle 3-2 on Saturday.
Klopp therefore has a difficult balancing act deciding whether it is worth emptying the tank of his injury-hit squad once more on Tuesday or to save their legs for Wolves’ visit to Anfield on the final day of the Premier League season.