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Jan 21, 2014

Coutinho 2.0 enjoying life in Liverpool

Until a year ago, Philippe Coutinho became an oft-quoted name every time people discussed the challenges awaiting a young Brazilian player trying to "break" Europe. He served, inevitably, as Exhibit A for how a move can backfire.

Sold to Inter Milan at the tender age of 16, the midfielder had fallen off the radar so spectacularly that he was genuinely surprised when a Premier League club came knocking. After failing to establish himself at the San Siro, Coutinho was even entertaining the thought of taking the long way back home in search of first team football. "I must admit that I didn't expect to have a club like Liverpool making a move. Let's say the offer came at a time where things weren't working out a lot for me," explains the 21 year-old in a chat with ESPN FC. Having amassed only 47 appearances for Inter since joining them in 2010, Coutinho knew he would be under scrutiny in England. Not just because Liverpool were hardly sailing smoothly, but also thanks to the hit and miss history of Brazilians in the Premiership.

"It was a massive responsibility. Liverpool are a big club with a lot of tradition and the absence of trophies in the last years certainly made things even more challenging. But they offered me a chance of a new beginning, so I didn't think twice," he recalls. A keen consumer of football when not in training or matches, Coutinho was aware that the physicality of the Prem could also accommodate players of lighter build and quick feet. A great example was a former teammate -- Chelsea's Oscar, who helped Coutinho and Brazil to the FIFA U20 World Cup title in 2011. But he also reckons that Brendan Rodgers' philosophy played a big part. "Liverpool's style helped me a lot. We play with quick touches and a lot of speed going forward. That suited me and my adaptation went faster than I expected."

Another pleasant surprise was how quickly the red side of the city of Liverpool warmed up to him. Last June, the club announced that he was outselling Kop legend Steven Gerrard in shirt sales. "It was nice to know that my work has been admired by the supporters. But I didn't stop to think too much about the shirt thing. There were bigger things occupying my mind. I had to help the club improve," he said. The Brazilian has been doing just so, giving Liverpool the touch of class that could prove priceless in the club's relentless pursuit of Champions League football. But just like fellow countryman Lucas Leiva, he is quite cautious to make predictions.

"People in England say it's one of the most competitive seasons so far. We have started the season quite well and it was natural that a lot of people got excited, but we have to take each game at a time. It is important for Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League, that's for sure." With five goals and eight assists to his name in 32 games for Liverpool, Coutinho has done enough for his club manager to lobby former boss Luiz Felipe Scolari about including the midfielder in his plans for the World Cup. Rodgers was quite useful in reassuring Scolari about Lucas Leiva's recovery from injury and the midfielder seems poised to make the squad and follow the footsteps of his uncle, Leivinha, who played for Brazil in Germany 1974. Coutinho's case is more of a long shot, though. The Rio de Janeiro-born playmaker has only been capped once, in October 2010, when Mano Menezes was the Selecao manager and had the specific aim of rejuvenating the squad -- he played 45 minutes in a 3-0 victory against Iran. With only one friendly before Scolari announces his squad in May, Coutinho is racing against time but still keeps the faith.

"Big Phil is always looking at the games in Europe, so he will be paying attention to what goes on in England. If I play well I'm in with a chance, so that's all I can do now." What he doesn't do is regret the past. Not even his unhappy time in Italy, where his slow integration with a group that had just won a treble did not offer him many chances to shine -- although his nutmegging of Marco Materazzi in one of his first training sections became a famous tale repeated in Brazil, especially after the fearsome defender threatened to hospitalize the young Brazilian if he tried the move a second time.

"I am thankful for the time I spent at Inter because it was a learning opportunity. They gave me a chance to play in Europe and I don't regret at all signing with them. People in Brazil said it was too early to move but I wanted to raise my game. Besides, it led to what I am living now: the best time of my career," Coutinho reasons.

During his time at Inter, Coutinho was loaned to Espanyol, Barcelona's poor cousins. Five goals and one assist in 16 games were enough to endear him to a public beyond Spain: UEFA named him as one of their "Revelations of La Liga" in 2012. Inter took notice and recalled him, but Coutinho kept spending more time on the bench then on the pitch.

Thankfully, an English club long-admired in Brazil showed him some much-needed appreciation. He's now wearing their number 10 shirt. And, boy is he enjoying it.