In January 2012, Espanyol were in the hunt for a Champions League place. Mauricio Pochettino’s side were a magnet for plaudits and praise. They’d lost just twice at home, beaten Atlético Madrid and drawn with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
During the winter transfer window, Los Periquitos went in for reinforcements amidst an injury crisis in attack. They brought in Kalu Uche from Xamax to strengthen their forward line. “I hope to help Espanyol qualify for the Champions League,” said another recruit, a 19-year-old, bushy-haired Brazilian by the name of Philippe Coutinho.
By May, Espanyol were 14th. Coutinho had played 16 games and won just two as his team fell from European qualification to the threat of relegation. On paper, his six-month loan in Barcelona had been a failure, but, on the pitch, the foundations of an extraordinary talent were laid as he wowed the Bernabéu and the Camp Nou. You could suggest that, without spending half a season under Pochettino at Cornellà-El Prat, the youngster may not have returned to the Catalan capital six years later at a cost of €120m.
Fed up of his Inter career sitting stagnant under Claudio Ranieri, Coutinho made the decision to leave Italy for Spain. His parents, who had moved to Milan with him in 2008, returned to Brazil, leaving Philippe to live in Barcelona with his girlfriend Aine. The previous summer, Coutinho had played against his new Espanyol teammates Jordi Amat and Álvaro Vázquez at the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia as Brazil knocked Spain out on the way to winning the tournament. That result meant Brazil had qualified for the Olympics in London, providing Coutinho with a reason for needing game time in the weeks and months before.
Five days after holding an Espanyol scarf aloft in a grey overcoat upon his arrival at the club, Coutinho made his first appearance in the blue and white shirt at San Mamés. He played 66 minutes of an eventual 3-3 draw with Athletic Club, with Catalan sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo describing his display as “active and showing good signs.”
Coutinho, who had been labelled an attacking playmaker, was shunted to the left by Pochettino to start with and began startling the right-backs of Spain. Joan Verdú was being used in the number 10 role, with Vladimir Weiss on the right and Uche through the middle. It wasn’t an attack that guaranteed goals and that factor was evident against Real Zaragoza the week after.
Espanyol spurned chance after chance against their lowly opposition with Uche the main culprit of poor finishing. Coutinho showcased his skill, using his quick feet to shift the ball past defenders before shaping to cross or shoot. After one of those now trademark actions, he was unlucky to see his low shot strike the foot of the post with the game goalless in the first half. The visitors took two of their limited opportunities to steal all three points away from Cornellà. “We know the quality he possesses but I can’t just rely on what he does,” Pochettino said about his team’s growing dependence on Coutinho for creativity.
The Espanyol boss adapted his line-up to squeeze Coutinho into a more central position and mould the rest of the players around him. There was plenty of involvement on the Brazilian’s part in the next couple of outings, but chances went amiss and sensational, weaving, jinking dribbles didn’t produce an end product.
A visit to the Bernabéu in early March saw Espanyol reach a new low. José Mourinho’s Real Madrid had barely dropped points either at home or away as they butted heads with Barcelona at the summit of LaLiga. Pochettino’s men were next in line on an already scorched trail of destruction as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sami Khedira and Kaká wrote themselves on to the scoresheet in a 5-0 victory.
Kaká greeted Coutinho with a warm smile and a hug as the teams shook hands before the game. The pair weren’t just compatriots and international teammates by then, but good friends as well, having spent time together in Milan. “Kaká is a great player, he gets the ball and aims to run at the opposition which is what I like to do,” Coutinho said before completing his move to Inter in 2008.
There was still a father and son element to their relationship and, as such, lessons needed to be taught. During his 45 minutes on the pitch, Coutinho performed flicks and tricks, drawing whistles from the home crowd for Ricardo Carvalho after he’d span him and landed him on his backside in one movement. Meanwhile, Kaká bided his time and calmly slotted in Madrid’s fifth to round off a typically mature and commanding display.
With Espanyol now loitering in mid-table, the papers weren’t kind to them the following day. “If they keep going in the same way, the European dream will stay as a beautiful dream,” was the assessment from Mundo Deportivo. Clouds were gathering over the club, the squad and Pochettino because, after such a superb start to the season, things were turning sour.
Their January signings hadn’t paid off, they weren’t scoring goals, they were making mistakes at the back, and they were crashing down the table, with some fans fearing the low point was still to come as they peered over their shoulders to see the likes of Real Betis, Real Sociedad and Rayo Vallecano creeping up behind them. The real threat – relegation – was still on the horizon but, with the thunder growing louder and the lightening becoming more frequent, Espanyol knew they had to move quickly to escape it.
Then, a ray of light came in the form of a thrashing of Rayo at Cornellà. Uche opened the scoring in the sunshine with a header that Joel Robles lost track of as it looped well inside the far post. Coutinho was next to find the net as Sergio García, who’d recently returned to the side, squared for the youngster to tap in for his first goal in LaLiga. García joined the rejoicing Coutinho in the celebrations, with most members of the Espanyol side overjoyed at the sight of their rough diamond coming good.
Then Coutinho really arrived. Minutes later, he fronted up Alejandro Arribas on the left, whirred past him and dangled the ball in front of Tito like a carrot before whisking it away and prodding past Robles to score a stunning second. The Spanish goalkeeper would continue to suffer at the hands of Coutinho in a collection of merciless Merseyside derbies later on.
Uche scooped in his second and Espanyol’s fourth before completing the 5-1 rout in the second half. Mundo Deportivo labelled it a “perfect performance” as the goals finally “appeared” for Los Periquitos. Their magician was the Brazilian boy with the baby-face and curly hair whose wizard robe was too big to fit his slight frame.
Struggling Racing Santander were next to travel to Barcelona and feel the full force of an Espanyol team that had finally clicked into shape. Uche was leading the line, Coutinho wandered in from his role on the left, Verdú had nailed down the number 10 spot, García was proving to be effective coming inside from the right, while Romaric and Juan Forlín provided stability in holding midfield.
After Cristhian Stuani and Verdú had exchanged goals, Coutinho rattled Espanyol into the lead with a well-taken chest and volley from the edge of the penalty area. With both sides reduced to a succession of powderpuff punches, it was Héctor Moreno who dealt the knockout blow to Racing when he headed in Coutinho’s nod across the six-yard box. Those six points were added to by a draw away at Betis as Espanyol hauled themselves back into contention for the European places.
Up next were Manuel Pellegrini’s Málaga, LaLiga’s surprise package who boasted an attack that included Isco, Salomón Rondón, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Santi Cazorla and Joaquín. Martín Demichelis headed up a solid defence alongside the likes of Joris Mathijsen and Nacho Monreal with either Willy Caballero and Carlos Kameni standing between the sticks.
After a torrid winter, they were eyeing up European qualification and had won four and taken a point away from the Bernabéu in their last five games. Mundo Deportivo billed it as a “clash of the titans” and picked out Coutinho as Espanyol’s key man. “The Brazilian has become an integral part of the Espanyol set-up,” the preview reads. “He scores great goals, he’s got three already, and assists his teammates. Magic in pure form.”
With one wave of Coutinho’s wand, Espanyol were ahead at Cornellà. The 19-year-old drew comparisons with Ronaldinho for sliding his free-kick under Málaga’s jumping wall to beat Caballero – a trick that Liverpool fans are more than familiar with now. Isco, also 19, struck the post with a volley up the other end before the elder statesmen took charge after the break. Van Nistelrooy pounced on a loose ball to equalise 14 minutes from time before Demichelis smashed home another second ball to give Málaga the lead moments later. The Andalusians headed back south with all three points and all but condemned Espanyol to mid-table mediocrity, at best.
Coutinho missed the following 0-0 draw at Villarreal before returning to action in time for the visit of Real Sociedad to Cornellà the week after. Carlos Vela took advantage of Espanyol’s loss of momentum by putting La Real two goals up before 15 minutes had ticked over, but Los Periquitos managed to salvage a 2-2 draw. Coutinho was sent off in the following fixture away at Osasuna for two questionable yellow cards and, after Espanyol’s appeal was turned down, he sat out a 4-0 win over Valencia a week later.
Atlético Madrid and Sporting Gijón both hit three during convincing wins over Pochettino’s derailed side before Odion Ighalo’s brace saw Granada beat them at Los Cármenes. Real Madrid secured the LaLiga title the next day with victory over Athletic, leaving Espanyol’s game with Barcelona the coming Wednesday as a dead rubber, on paper.
The Camp Nou put on a special show both on and off the pitch for the outgoing Guardiola in his last home game before leaving as coach. There were huge banners, sentimental faces and dozens of cameras fixated upon the Catalan icon, but the focus eventually drifted on to one of those on the field. Amongst all the fanfare, Coutinho shone under the lights with a magnificent individual performance full of the usual eye-catching twists and tricks. But then, like now, there’s always that little Argentine in the blue and red shirt who is the centre of attention. Like the rest of the crowd and a slightly embarrassed Guardiola, Coutinho found himself in awe of Lionel Messi, who scored all the goals in a 4-0 drubbing.
Fast forward a few years and the South Americans find themselves in the same situation: one in the spotlight, one in the shadow. What the latter has proved throughout his career, especially during this six-month spell at Cornellà, is that he benefits from being the main man, the talisman in a team that is tailored to suit him. It certainly helped propel his career to greater heights during his six eventful months at Espanyol.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08