Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho makes Inter Milan regret his 2013 transfer
Rafael Benitez was still serving Liverpool even when he wasn't Liverpool manager. Shortly after he had been sacked by Inter Milan in December 2010, the former Reds boss picked up the phone and called his close friend Frank McPartland who, at the time, was the head of Liverpool's Kirkby academy
During their conversation, Benitez spoke highly of Inter youngster Philippe Coutinho, a player he took a liking to during his short stay at the San Siro. The Spaniard urged Liverpool to go after Coutinho and told McPartland that he had an advantage because the Italian club had not yet realised his potential.
At the end of the call, McPartland informed Liverpool's director of football Damien Comolli of Benitez's suggestion. Comolli quickly dispatched Liverpool's scouts to cast their eyes over the young Brazilian and they came back with extremely positive reports.
"In the spring of 2012, the owners told me that we had a limited spending budget per player of €10 million and we could only sign players who were under 21," Comolli told ESPN FC.
"I said to the scout: 'Coutinho becomes our priority' because we were looking for a wide player to replace Dirk Kuyt. He [Coutinho] was not available because they transferred him to Espanyol [on loan] later on.
"We didn't even know he was that good -- it was difficult to watch him play because he was never playing at Inter. We knew about him, we knew he was good, but it was only when Rafa said he's going to be world-class. When somebody like Rafa says a thing about a player like this, you listen.
"The head of recruitment said he was the best we could get. But I was sacked, then Kenny [Dalglish] was sacked."
Under a new regime, Liverpool eventually did sign Coutinho, on Jan. 30, 2013 for a fee of £8.5m. He would quickly display his talent on Merseyside and, four years later, reports of a big-money move to Barcelona were circling before he put pen to paper on a new five-year contract last week. To Inter, though, he's still the one that got away.
"It was a great regret for me to have to sell him -- perhaps one of my greatest regrets in over 20 years at Inter," Inter Milan's sporting director Piero Ausilio told ESPN FC.
Coutinho had signed for Inter in 2008 from Brazil side Vasco de Gama as a 16-year-old. However, FIFA rules meant he was unable to move to Italy until he turned 18 and he immediately returned to the club on loan for the next two years. During that period, the Nerazzurri closely tracked his progress in Brazil and invited him to visit Milan a number of times.
Coutinho eventually arrived at the San Siro permanently in the summer 2010 -- the year after Inter won the Champions League under Jose Mourinho. He was the club's only new recruit that summer, and was touted as the future of the club.
"He was a lot younger than he is now," retired Inter defender Cristian Chivu recalled to ESPN FC. "He was young but you could see the quality he had."
Ausilio added: "I have splendid memories of Coutinho, both as a footballer and of the lad himself. When he got here, it struck us how outstanding he was immediately -- he was serious and wanted to work and you could see that he had all that was needed to go on and do what he has done so far."
Around the dressing room, Coutinho was known to be extremely shy and he struggled to adapt to the style of football in Serie A. Slight in frame and stature, he worked hard to correct his physical shortcomings and spent a large amount of time in his first few months at Inter inside the gym of the Angelo Moratti Sports Centre, working tirelessly to build up his muscle and strength.
"You could see that it was a bit tough for him, especially the physicality where he had some problems gaining power," Chivu said. "But I think it is normal at that age."
"I've got to put this into the context of the moment he arrived," Ausilio continued. "Because, for sure, he would be a regular if he were here now, playing all our games and having all the success he is now having at Liverpool. He just was not ready physically and he still had to get used to a different kind of football over here."
Coutinho made just 28 appearances in during his first one-and-a-half seasons at Inter, some of which he struggled in.
"I was impressed by him in training because you could see the quality, you could see what this guy is able to do," Chivu said. "He had some problems during the games, but that is normal.
"In the games you have to deal with the pressure, the pressure of the supporters, the press, the pressure of the other team. It's totally different. You could see everything. I was really impressed by him and I knew, sooner or later, that he would become a top player."
In January 2012, Mauricio Pochettino used his close relationship with Ausilio to sign Coutinho on a five-month loan for La Liga side Espanyol, where he thrived -- making the most of his much-needed game-time. Pochettino then tried to sign Coutinho for Southampton a year later, but with no success.
"When he [Coutinho] came back, Inter had taken a new direction," Ausilio concedes. "We had changed coach again -- and we were looking to find new continuity, and we had changed a few players.
"We had changed coach in June -- with Gian Piero Gasperini coming, and then he was changed after only three months [for Claudio Ranieri] -- so it was a difficult time for Inter, not just for Coutinho.
"After a year, he was not playing regularly, but we could see he had the talent. Maybe we just had some more talented players ahead of him in the pecking order at the time -- like Diego Milito, Wesley Sneijder, Antonio Cassano and Rodrigo Palacio -- so he couldn't get a regular game, and he needed this."
Coutinho began to push for more opportunities. Liverpool's long-standing interest materialised with a transfer offer in January 2013, with then-manager Brendan Rodgers' promising regular action. The player, himself, had made his mind up.
"To be honest, at that moment in time, Inter were already working on different transfers," Ausilio says. "We were already in early negotiations over new owners and in talks with potential new shareholders.
"It was a moment when we had a young coach -- Andrea Stramaccioni -- and we had to sell to buy.
"We had this opportunity to sell a player who was not playing and then, with the proceeds from the transfer, we had the chance to buy players who were more suited to what the coach wanted.
"So the money we got was invested in buying [Mateo] Kovacic, who we then sold on for far more -- almost €40m to Real Madrid.
"We were already completing the signing of Mauro Icardi from Sampdoria, so the money from selling Coutinho actually enabled us to bring in Kovacic and went towards the signing of Icardi too."
From Chivu's point of view, however, the door was shut on Coutinho far too quickly.
"In my opinion, he did well but the people expected more," the former Romania international insists. "They always forgot that he was very young, so he needed time. It was difficult for him that period, but I think it was a good experience being part of a top Italian team, which prepared him for what was up next.
"It's quite complicated. Italian football and some top Italian clubs don't have so much patience with young players. I think the club saw the talent he had, they saw what he was able to do. But they didn't have time -- and didn't want to find the time -- to wait for him and give him the opportunity to grow in a normal way."
Coutinho's levels of performance on Merseyside quickly began to show Inter that they moved on too soon. His form was reported back to Inter, which took a few by surprise.
"We always said the Premier League is physically more difficult than Italy," Chivu says. "For him, it was a question mark: if he's able to play there if he didn't play in Italy. The career that he has now and what he is going to have from now on, we can only say: chapeau [congratulations].
"Liverpool saw that potential and they offered him a new contract. They didn't repeat the mistake that maybe Inter made a couple of years ago."
Liverpool would certainly disagree, but Ausilio still holds out hope that he and Inter can right that wrong in the future.
"Coutinho's career started here thanks to us," he claims. "He was playing in a Brazil U-17 squad with the likes of Neymar and Lucas [Moura], so we did well to get such a talented player like him.
"Now we have very strong owners, although Financial Fair Play does still have an impact on our finances, but I cannot exclude in future that this lad could end his career back here at Inter -- it is something we can always hope for."
ESPN FC's Italy Correspondent Ben Gladwell contributed to this report.
Glenn is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.