MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Roberto Firmino likely spoke for lots of Liverpool fans when he posted a message to Philippe Coutinho via Instagram following his fellow Brazilian’s move to Barcelona.
“Liverpool is no longer the same without you my magical brother,” Firmino wrote.
The club gained 160 million euros ($192 million) by selling Coutinho in a blockbuster transfer that was completed on Monday, but the team lost his long-range goals, his technical skills and close control, and his vision and passing range from central midfield.
Liverpool has to move on, and quickly: Manchester City — the unbeaten English Premier League leader — arrives at Anfield on Sunday, in the Reds’ first match without Coutinho as they battle for a finish in the Champions League qualification positions.
They occupy the fourth and final spot with 16 matches remaining and are on a 13-match unbeaten run in the league, but there is a danger the loss of Coutinho could derail them.
How will Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp ensure that doesn’t happen?
Klopp is fortunate in one respect that the departure of Coutinho has coincided with the return to fitness of attacking midfielder Adam Lallana, who has started Liverpool’s last two games after a long-term thigh injury. Lallana is still not fully up to speed but when he is, the England international is an important part of Liverpool’s team pressing, mobility, and ball-carrying in midfield.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is another, albeit very different, option in midfield and is getting to grips with Liverpool’s style of play following his summer move from Arsenal.
In Lallana and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Klopp has players who will offer less in attack than Coutinho but will work harder and allow Liverpool to retain a better defensive shape. This has been important in recent months for Klopp, who has made the team harder to beat since its collapse at Wembley Stadium on Oct. 22 in a 4-1 loss against Tottenham.
In the 13 league games since then, Liverpool has won nine and drawn the other four. It is on a 17-match unbeaten run in all competitions.
Liverpool actually has a better win percentage without Coutinho than with him this season (66.70 percent from nine games he didn’t play, compared to 46.20 percent from 13 games he played), with the explosive front three of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, and Firmino still offering the team a threat up front.
Liverpool’s defensive resilience has been strengthened further by the arrival last week of center back Virgil van Dijk for $100 million, a world-record fee for a defender.
So, maybe a team known for its exhilarating attack under Klopp will actually become a more solid one with the absence of arguably its most flamboyant player. Liverpool has been linked with a move for Monaco’s Thomas Lemar and Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez as a replacement for Coutinho, but maybe there is no real necessity, especially with dynamic Guinea midfielder Naby Keita joining from Leipzig in the summer.
Asked about Keita amid speculation his move could be fast-tracked to this month, Leipzig coach Ralph Hasenhuettl said on Thursday: “The current situation is the same as it was all season — that there’s no reason for us to let Naby Keita go early.”
Coutinho has been a scourge of City in recent seasons, scoring winners at Anfield in 2014 and ’15, and being the driving force behind Liverpool’s thrilling 4-1 win over City at Etihad Stadium in November 2015.
City hasn’t triumphed at Anfield since Nicolas Anelka grabbed an injury-time winner against his former club in 2003, making Liverpool its hardest away trip in the Premier League.
A win or draw for Pep Guardiola’s side, which holds a 15-point lead, would remove the biggest remaining obstacle to an unbeaten league season that would match the achievement of Arsenal’s “Invincibles” from the 2003-04 season.
The absence of Coutinho this weekend will only help that quest.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80