Monday, May 13, 2013

Coutinho Making Liverpool Minds Dance With Possibilities

Philippe Coutinho is 20 years old. Sit back and ruminate upon that. It might make you happy, it might make you sad; it should definitely make you question what you were doing at that age. Whatever is was, it cannot match up to running football games with a nonchalance not seen in years.

Twenty years old. To say the world is at his feet is not quite apt, for everything is at his feet anyway, almost always. The ball is rarely a few yards away from those feet, those two size eight black, leather bags of stardust. When the ball does leave his feet, men twice his age inhale sharply -- their arms raise and smiles broaden. They want to know how he makes those passes, how he mangles the mind of his marker -- but yet, they do not want the secret to be revealed. No one wants to peer behind the magician's curtain.

This might seem like hyperbole. It probably is. But reason and rationality be damned -- he's only 20 and within 11 appearances has become one of the most popular Liverpool players in recent times. Children want his name upon their shirt, to wear it as they trip over open shoelaces mimicking his movement on the playground; adults just want to sing his name repeatedly, watching this throwback of a footballer remind them of a time gone by. Names reel off the tongue: Jari Litmanen, Peter Beardsley, Ronaldinho. He isn't as good as them yet, but he could be.

Only Coutinho could take the spotlight from a player who had just scored a hat-trick. But as Daniel Sturridge confirmed the possession of his match ball, the away fans sung the name of their Brazilian. Sturridge's name was to come later, but the love was first fired towards their number 10. Here is a player who makes football fun, and did so in a fun game of football.

There is temptation to simply whisper Coutinho's name repeatedly -- for ranting and raving is far too brutish for a player of such skill -- but in among his two assists and constant running, there was an entertaining game. Entertaining for Brendan Rodgers, at least, particularly in the second half.

And before Coutinho is carried back to Lime Street on a sedan chair, a moment to reflect on those around him -- particularly Sturridge. He is only 23 years old himself and looks, at times, like an accomplished striker.

This was one of those times: his pace was a constant outlet for the long ball; his awareness was top notch, his touch immaculate. That trident brought the trio of goals -- his first came from a long Andre Wisdom ball, his second a smart far post finish, his third a fine, lofted finish.

It was his first in particular that opened eyes and craned necks -- not just for his intelligent movement off the ball and emphatic strike with it, but because this was a time his side needed a moment to ignite the game. It had started tentatively for Liverpool. Though Fulham's opener was undeserved, it was not overly surprising. Sturridge took it upon himself to change the narrative of the game and bring his side back into it -- that mentality can be more vital than any fierce finish.

Mentality has been no friend of Liverpool's this season, but here they showed a determination to be better in the last 45. There will be calls that their second half improvement came in a fixture of little importance. Fair, but harsh. The improvement was so stark that it was clearly a resistance by the away side, a refusal to end a season of strong away performances with a whimper.

How the 90 minutes reflected the season. The first half was disjointed, partly down to the 3-5-2 formation which Liverpool needed time to adapt to. Rodgers wasn't waiting. He removed Andre Wisdom for Jose Enrique and went to a more structured 4-2-3-1. With that came the type of performance that has punctuated their season away from home; here was the swagger of QPR and Norwich, the incisiveness of Newcastle and Wigan.

Rodgers, and Liverpool, will focus on the second half more than the first. It has been a hard season and one most arduous at times -- forgive the club, and its fans, for simply revelling in the trickery of Coutinho, the forward play of Sturridge and everything around that.

Forgive them for focusing on Wisdom, who looked strong at centre half, an exciting glimpse into the future; forgive them for acknowledging the running of Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, as well as the industry of Jonjo Shelvey in a performance more polished than any of his others in recent times. But more than individuals was the teamwork, the movement off the ball and the intelligent passing to make it worthwhile.

Rodgers deserves praise for switching the system at halftime. Fulham were the essence of acquiescence in the second half, but that was partly down to how Liverpool played. When they are good, they can be soul-crushingly so. The Fulham attacks, infrequent as they were, were well defended -- especially by Pepe Reina, his gloves like shovels as he turned a couple of shots around the post.

It was not a perfect performance, but the penultimate game in a season that no longer matters is not the time for hand-wringing. Rodgers knows what is required of his team next season; an end of season 3-1 win at Fulham reveals little new. But what he does know will please him, if only in parts: This is a team capable of good things when the mindset and approach is right. Things to work on this summer, plenty to think about.

But disregard the planning for now. Embrace the ruckus a Brazilian playmaker can cause -- and that's to say nothing of an on-fire Sturridge and sidelined Uruguayan. With Coutinho in the team, it feels like anything is possible for Liverpool. He's only 20, after all.

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