The go-to excuse for players wanting to leave a football club is cite a desire for Champions League football. Philippe Coutinho might sacrifice immediate ambitions in the competition to pursue an exit strategy.
A dilemma looms for Coutinho having captained Liverpool into the knockout phase on Wednesday night. There is a possibility the 7-0 victory over Spartak Moscow is his final appearance in the competition this season. It is a slim chance, but it is more likely than some want to believe.
The romantic view is Coutinho’s hat-trick whet the appetite for more to come in the last 16, but nothing should be taken for granted. Coutinho’s wish to move to Barcelona in January – where he will be cup-tied – is as fervent as it was when he handed in a transfer request in August.
Anyone hoping for a statement of commitment post-match was disappointed.
"I do not know how the future is going to be,” said Coutinho.
“What will happen in January, we will know it in January. I do not know if there will be an offer. I am at Liverpool and I always do my best when I have the opportunity to play, respecting the jersey and the supporters.
“Last summer there was a job offer in the same way that happens with any employee and I was interested in it. Since I stayed, I have played with will and desire.
“It was a special night due to the result and because I had the armband in such an important game playing for a club like Liverpool."
Carefully chosen words, but not quite ‘how can I leave after a night like this?’
Liverpool 5 - 0 Spartak Moscow (Philippe Coutinho, 50 min)
Jurgen Klopp was equally non-committal earlier this week when asked to guarantee Coutinho will still be at Anfield in February. He said he was neither sure nor unsure.
It was a significant shift in tone, ambiguous enough for those from all sides to fill in the gaps. It differed starkly from Klopp’s remarks in July when he shut down any chance of losing a prized asset.
There was certainty in the summer. Not now. The subject has been given more thought within the club than anyone has stated publicly.
What has changed? If Barcelona do not bid a fee similar or even in excess of the £115 million rejected last summer, very little. If Coutinho recognises how far Liverpool can go in the tournament and decides to see it through there will be nothing to ponder.
However, should an offer of the magnitude offered six months ago materialise and the Brazilian repeat his desire to move immediately, there is cause to believe Liverpool will at least give it more consideration. Or to be more specific, Klopp will.
What Coutinho and Barcelona know from their last experience is Fenway Sports Group will defer to their manager on this subject, and if he believes the team can flourish and develop without the playmaker he may cash in – knowing he will have the funds to reinvest.
A couple of weeks after Liverpool successfully resisted the sale of Coutinho to Barcelona last summer the nagging doubts began.
Refusing Coutinho’s departure was important and correct. The timing was wrong and it would have sent the wrong message on the eve of a campaign.
But as the bids increased beyond £100 million, there was a realisation that – financially – turning down such a fee did not make much sense. Coutinho wanted to go. He will go eventually. And given how many others who perform a similar role might impress over the next 12 months, especially in a World Cup year, there were many within Liverpool asking themselves if the refusal to deal – while made for sporting reasons late in pre-season – was more emotional than rational.
Sometimes in football – unlike normal business – there is no option but the illogical.
No scenario in which Liverpool sold Coutinho last August was going to be tolerated by supporters.
Liverpool legends turn out as Kenny Dalglish Stand is unveiled at Anfield
Owners FSG, regularly accused of cashing in on players (for the record, not a single player sale during their tenure has failed to swell the manager’s transfer kitty), would have taken most flak. An inconsistent start to this campaign would have been attributed to the club’s lack of ambition selling such an influential player, as was the case with Xabi Alonso in 2009 and Luis Suarez in 2014.
Instead, since the start of this campaign, we have witnessed the gradual easing out of Coutinho as fundamental to the future of Klopp’s side. He missed the start of the season anyway, his bad back especially painful when the transfer window was still open. When he has played he has been superb, as shown last night. Liverpool would obviously prefer to keep him and his performance against Spartak underlines their predicament. They also know he’ll be gone in six months anyway.
Mohamed Salah has started better than anyone expected, and Sadio Mane is well on the road to world class status.
So while nothing is guaranteed all scenarios are possible. That was not the case in the last transfer window.
Coutinho will be giving up plenty if he goes in January. A last sixteen Champions League tie at Anfield will create an atmosphere like nothing he has known at the club.
Realists will say it is a small price to pay to move to the Nou Camp as it is unlikely Liverpool will be European Champions.
Historians will point out that has been said before. Ask the last Kop star who headed to La Liga believing Liverpool's Champions League ambitions unrealistic.
The views surrounding Michael Owen’s move in the summer of 2004 needed swift revision by the summer of 2005.