Having been told by Uefa to pencil in early August for the resumption of the Champions League, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea can begin to cautiously plan the second legs of their last-16 ties, all left in limbo by the coronavirus crisis. By then, they should also have a clearer idea where one gifted footballer in his own state of limbo will be spending the next phase of his career and how much he is worth in the game’s new economy.
Philippe Coutinho is owned by Barcelona, and still the unhappy bearer of the highest fee Barca have ever agreed to pay for a player. He is on loan at Bayern Munich – who are 3-0 up from the first leg of their Champions League tie against Chelsea – a deal which officially expires at the end of June, by which time Coutinho may well feel far closer to Chelsea than to either Bayern or Barcelona.
Chelsea are understood to have responded favourably to Barcelona’s eager suggestions that Coutinho, 27, could be theirs for much less than half the €160m (Dh633m) – including all the add-ons – they committed to Liverpool in January 2018 to make the Brazilian the costliest signing ever to arrive at Camp Nou.
The discount – Barca are prepared to drop the price as low as €65m – reflects not only the player’s reduced status, after a chequered 18 months at Barca and a hit-and-miss seven months at Bayern, but also the impact on the game’s economy of the extended shutdown caused by the global pandemic.
Barcelona, who are top of La Liga and tied at 1-1 halfway through their Champions League last 16 tie against Napoli, are in particular financial difficulty because of a dramatic loss of income over the last six weeks of inactivity. The club and players this month agreed a 72 per cent salary cut because of the crisis. Sales in the next transfer window, whenever it opens, are key to Barca club’s making up a portion of their losses.
Coutinho is the main exhibit in their shop window: a senior Brazil international, who turns 28 in June, and with experience in each of club football’s four best-ranked leagues.
Bayern have told Barca that they have no interest in turning Coutinho’s loan – for which they paid an €8m fee and covered the player’s salary, upwards of €1.5m a month – into a permanent deal, despite some impressive performances by the Brazilian in pushing Bayern into first place in a tight German title-race. Nor have Barcelona detected any willingness to pay a €60m-plus fee for him from leading clubs in Serie A, where Coutinho played for Internazionale as a precocious teenager.
Which leaves the Premier League as the one market, Barca believe, where Coutinho might fetch a price they could accept, even in the flatter economy that emerges after the coronavirus crisis.
Coutinho’s cachet in English football remains high from his four and half seasons at Liverpool, who were reluctant to let him leave, and who resisted strong pressure from Coutinho himself to sign for Barcelona in the summer of 2017. When the club yielded, in the next transfer window, they invested the mammoth transfer fee wisely, buying Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker.
The move worked far better for Liverppol than Coutinho. Within nine months of arriving at Barcelona, the so-called ‘Magician’ of Anfield was being booed by sections of Camp Nou.
Fans judged him against the vast fee that had brought him to Spain, and he seemed burdened by comparisons with Neymar, who had left Barcelona in the summer of 2017, and Andres Iniesta, the much-loved midfielder whose anticipated departure – Iniesta moved to Japan in the summer of 2018 – Coutinho’s signing had been designed to compensate for. He was neither as effective on the left flank of a front three as Neymar had been, nor as brilliant in midfield as Iniesta.
“His versatility can only help us because he can play on the left of the attack, as he did at Liverpool, on the right, as he has done for Brazil, or in midfield,” beamed the then head coach of Barcelona, Ernesto Valverde, when Coutinho signed. Around 18 months later, the player had made none of those positions his own, and was frequently on the substitutes’ bench.
But the Premier League vividly remembers the Liverpool version of Coutinho, and it is understood the player himself sees a potential ‘fit’ at Chelsea, where two experienced attacking players, Pedro and Willian are expected to leave in the next transfer window, and where Eden Hazard’s departure for Madrid last year left a gap that the Coutinho could naturally fill, cutting in from the left of a front three.
The price, though, will be nowhere the €100m that Hazard fetched, still less the towering fee that once made Coutinho the emblem of elite football’s extraordinary rates of inflation.