Summer 2017 was meant to be the defining period in Philippe Coutinho’s career.
It should now, however, pale into insignificance when compared to events that could unfold in the coming weeks.
Back then, Barcelona’s ravenous pursuit and Liverpool’s steadfast refusal to countenance a gargantuan sale spoke volumes about his rising worth.
The course of history has not subsequently followed expectation.
January 2018’s club-record – and belated – £142 million capture has proven immoderate, with the La Liga winners now, reportedly, scrambling to cut losses after 21 goals in 75, often-tortured, performances. Some decline from his Merseyside high-water mark.
Enter the challenge of carrying hopes for the 2019 Copa America’s expectant host nation, beginning in the early hours of Saturday morning UAE time against Bolivia.
A stern task. Yet, one that offers redemption – and an escape route from purgatory at Camp Nou.
If his Barca stint cannot be recuperated, the tournament will provide a blueprint for how any future employer can rekindle a once-searing talent whose flame has dwindled. Light it up and reticence will transform into desire across Europe’s boardrooms.
“I didn’t have a great season,” Coutinho told reporters in his homeland of Brazil this week.
“It was below what I expect from myself and what the supporters expect from me. But you can only gain confidence through working hard, which is what I have done and what I will continue to do.”
No obvious suitor has emerged to halt the 26-year-old’s torment. Solace, however, is presented by the vibrant yellow of the fabled Canarinho shirt.
Bile flowed forth with a controversial – and telling, despite Coutinho’s protestations to the contrary – celebration in which he put his fingers in his ears and gestured towards the crowd after March’s thunderbolt against Manchester United at Camp Nou.
In contrast, he was enveloped in comforting arms during Sunday’s final tune-up against 10-man Honduras when his penalty highlighted a bravura display in a 7-0 rout.
Adventure on the ball was welcomed by team-mates and not chastised by fans. Groans and opprobrium increasingly met mislaid through balls when clad in Blaugrana (blue and deep red of Barca’s kit).
This marks a death spiral for any playmaker. Conviction to risk a mistake on the ball in the hope of a glorious pass is the fuel that sparks their genius.
Rattling both posts in the first half against Honduras did not break Coutinho’s brittle belief. His renewed effervescence was exemplified by a steal of possession from a dawdling centre-back and subsequent shot, which flashed narrowly wide.
The ex-Vasco Da Gama and Inter Milan starlet was back at the heart of things; flanked by David Neres and Richarlison, supported by Casemiro and Arthur.
All of them united in looking towards him for inspiration.
Meanwhile, Coutinho began more than a third (13) of Barca’s 2018/19 La Liga matches on the substitutes’ bench. He started neither leg against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semi-finals.
Symbolically, he was hooked after an hour at Anfield in the semi-finals with his ascendant former employers on their way to one of the Champions League’s great comebacks.
His effervescent style has jarred with measured principles ingrained at Barca. Predictions about an uncomfortable fit as replacement for Andres Iniesta have proved correct.
Subservience to Lionel Messi at Barca has further curtailed him.
Lessons from the past were ignored by their scouting department. Possible suitors Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United must review what role they can offer him.
Coutinho cut a forlorn figure when constrained by successive head coaches at Inter, where he was intermittently present from 2010-13.
Mauricio Pochettino’s care when on loan at Espanyol in 2011/12 revitalised him. He then bloomed under Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool.
A symbiotic relationship with firm friend Neymar at international level is broken by the PSG superstar’s injury.
But a system engineered by boss Tite that grants Coutinho the freedom to express himself should produce substantial recompense, plus a first Copa since 2007.
“Coutinho’s had a difficult year at Barcelona,” Brazil and PSG centre-back Thiago Silva told reporters. “It was demanding and they jeered him a lot.
“But here, in this team, he’s our reference point – especially when Neymar isn’t available.
“In the two friendly matches we’ve played, he was the best player on the pitch.
“Not just because of his assists and his goals, but because of his defensive work. He’s happy again.”
Coutinho had the world at his feet two years ago. Now, comes a chance to mount a golden recovery.
Barcelona new boy Frenkie de Jong is convinced he can gel with Arthur and is “eager to play” with the Brazil international.
De Jong, 22, will join up with his new team-mates next month after a €75 million move was secured from Ajax in January.
The arrival of the highly rated Netherlands international has led to questions about whether Arthur may need to step aside after a promising debut campaign. But he insisted there is room for both in the La Liga title winners’ midfield.
“He [Arthur] is a great player. He is technical, he is calm, he is very, very good and I really want to play, I am eager to play with him,” De Jong told Esporte Interativo.
“Of course we can play together, why not?”
Ajax and Netherlands centre-back Matthijs de Ligt continues to be linked with following in his compatriot’s footsteps. Amid strong interest from the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Manchester United, De Jong could offer no insight.
He stated: “It’s his [De Ligt’s] decision. He must decide his future with his family and friends and we’ll see where he goes.”
De Jong scored five times in 89 appearances for Ajax. He should be in situ at Barca to take part in next month’s pre-season’s tour of Japan.
Centre midfielder Arthur has stated he feels “more freedom” when representing Brazil, rather than running out for Barcelona.
Arthur, 22, enjoyed a solid debut season at Camp Nou after his €40 million switch from Gremio. Such form has thrust him into contention for the Canarinha, who are preparing to host the 2019 Copa America – which kicks off on June 14 (local time).
When asked to reflect on the differences between club and country, the eight-times-capped international revealed a preference for a deeper role with his nation.
“The main thing is that I participate in the creation of the play further forward at Barcelona, [whereas] in the national team I have more freedom to go back and build the play,” he told reporters, according to Marca.
“I think that’s the biggest difference, as Tite gave me more freedom to look for the ball further back.
“[At Barcelona] I get more between the lines and I have to move towards the attack.”
Arthur got one assist in 27 run-outs on the way to his club’s La Liga success.
Brazil start in Group A at the Copa against Bolivia at Cicero Pompeu de Toledo Stadium.