Tottenham vs Barcelona: Philippe Coutinho and Mauricio Pochettino cross paths again as key men in search to regain stability

It was the 67th minute and the game was already up. Tottenham had snaffled all three points in a contest many now view as a seminal moment in Jurgen Klopp’s time as Liverpool manager.

But Philippe Coutinho was still buzzing around, desperate to leave his mark, forcing Hugo Lloris to produce a save fit to rival those from any Premier League season, flying with his wrong hand to tip his trademark curling shot onto the crossbar.

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino leapt from his technical area in appreciation of the immense skill on display, wary of the danger any side trailing by three goals still possess when Coutinho is in such a mood.

Tottenham would see out the match, and while Liverpool have undergone major reconstruction since that defining defeat, Klopp’s ability to turn his side into title contenders this season has largely been thanks to the £146m raised by Coutinho’s sale.

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The Brazilian returns to Wembley this Wednesday night a Barcelona player hoping to land a significant blow to Pochettino’s hopes of taking Tottenham beyond the Champions League group stages.

Inter Milan have already shown to Spurs’ cost why they are the dangerous, floating pot four side everyone was desperate to avoid, and it was via the Nerazzurri that Pochettino would first learn of Coutinho’s immense talent.

It was in January 2012 when Inter boss Claudio Ranieri shipped out a 20-year-old Coutinho to Espanyol, then managed by Pochettino. It was an uncertain point in his career, having failed to leave a lasting impression at the Milanese club since his £4.5m move from Vasco da Gama in 2008.

But Coutinho flourished under Pochettino, scoring five goals in 16 games during his loan spell. One eye-catching free-kick struck underneath the wall against Malaga was a brief glimpse into the kind of skills he would produce many years later at Liverpool.

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Pochettino’s side in fact dipped collectively in the second half of the season with Coutinho in the side, drifting away from the Champions League spots to finish with a mediocre campaign.

But the Argentinian allowed Coutinho to develop character traits that would ultimately lead him to become the game’s second-most expensive player in history.

Pochettino offered Coutinho the chance to revitalise his career, through a steep process of development, despite the side’s free-fall to within five points of relegation.

Espanyol recorded just two victories during the loan spell, but the player will always be grateful to the man he faces again on Wednesday for the role he played in his career.

In December 2015, Coutinho said of his loan spell under Pochettino: “It helped me, the style in Spain when I went to Espanyol.

“And Mauricio Pochettino, who was the manager there at the time, gave me a lot of confidence. He always encouraged me to play and show my skills.

“And he told me to enjoy it. In that sense I have been lucky with all my managers. They have all encouraged me to play my game.”

In the end, it was Coutinho’s goals which kept Espanyol afloat. Learning how to produce the level of off-the-ball intensity required to stay in a Pochettino side would ultimately serve him well for life under Klopp.

But the appreciation between player and manager is mutual given Southampton were scouting Coutinho when they first came across the 46-year-old they would later appoint as Nigel Atkins’ successor at St Mary’s.

Espanyol's Argentinian coach Mauricio Po

By the end of Coutinho’s loan at Espanyol, Liverpool scouts were watching his performances, and it was clear that his future lay on a bigger stage.

In March 2013, two months after the pair had coincidentally arrived at roughly the same time on English shores, Pochettino said of Coutinho: “Philippe is a Brazilian player and, as it happens with most Brazilians, he has a special magic in his feet.

“Aside from the magic that he has, he also has an amazing work-rate and that makes us doubt whether he fits the mould of a typical Brazilian player or a European one because his work ethic is outstanding.

“What is important about him is he is a good lad, a good kid – a great, humble person. I do think Coutinho has that same quality that Ronaldinho and Messi have, but he has much to prove yet.

“What is really clear to me is that Coutinho is a really responsible player – really dedicated and responsible to his own players.”

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The 26-year-old has gone from strength to strength, and following his successful spell on Merseyside, Coutinho’s has taken his intense work rate with him to Barcelona under Ernesto Valverde.

It has been a torturous week for the Catalans, dropping seven points in seven days for the first time since 2003, two draws and a surprise defeat to bottom club Leganes underlining the difficulties Valverde has had in finding the same spark from last season’s double-winning team.

Coutinho was handed the unenviable challenge of not only shouldering his hugely overinflated transfer fee but also of replacing Andres Iniesta’s guile and game intelligence.

For all of his qualities, that was always going to prove an uphill task, but one of the primary reasons behind Barcelona’s current instability is the absence of a controlling midfielder.

Ivan Rakitic has understandably struggled to get back up to speed after helping Croatia reach the World Cup final, while Arturo Vidal has not been signed to provide the same qualities that Iniesta possessed.

Coutinho is no longer the new signing, especially given his previous stint in Catalonia, and with Tottenham not exactly at their most stable themselves, Wembley’s vast pitch provides the perfect setting for the playmaker to show Pochettino how far he’s come.

 

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