With six regular starters left off the travelling squad, Liverpool look set to field a cobbled-together lineup of youth and outcasts on Thursday when they face Bordeaux in their first Europa League match of the season. One of the few players expected to start who won't fit that description is Philippe Coutinho, who is returning after he missed out against Manchester United through suspension.
There have even be whispers that the 23-year-old Coutinho, who is a player manager Brendan Rodgers sees as a nailed-on starter, and not the returning Mamdou Sakho could be handed the armband. Even if the captaincy doesn't fall to him, though, with Liverpool struggling massively to create goals and chances so far this season he is likely to shoulder much of the burden if the travelling Reds are to get anything out of the game.
"It's vital to stay calm, mainly because we are just at the beginning in all competitions," said Coutinho, looking to settle nerves that have been shaken by another rough start. "We have a long season ahead and many things can happen. The Premier League is tough—all clubs have great teams—and we know twists and turns will happen. We have to not only remain calm but also to work hard to achieve what we want on the pitch."
Staying calm may be the goal for the team, but for fans, watching them stumble to another poor start while showing many of the same flaws they both began and ended last season with is of great concern. Meanwhile, a radically changed starting eleven against Bordeaux seems something of a lose-lose proposition for the club's increasingly embattled manager, where no matter what happens there will be room for criticism.
Wholesale changes as a response to a disappointing start would be one thing, but all the signals coming out of the club via connected journalists is that tomorrow the Reds will field a B Team in order to rest Rodgers' preferred starters for the weekend. Rodgers' initial struggles in Europe—and his aversion to squad rotation—were written off early as the growing pains of a young manager who still had time to figure things out.
In year four, though, it's hard to see a manager who is still learning and far easier to see one who has decided his way is better despite that it hasn't led to the desired results over three full years in charge. And so, once again, in place of rotation we are again being given a clear signal from Rodgers that certain games don't much matter to him in the grand scheme. Despite that, Coutinho insists the team see tomorrow as important.
"It's a very important game as it's our first in the Europa League," insisted the Brazilian playmaker. "We know how important it is to have a good start in a competition like this and everyone's focused on doing well in this game. After two consecutive defeats, we're conscious there's going to be more pressure from the outside—we have to do things right on the pitch so we can achieve good results."
Of course, if Liverpool do achieve a result with a side cobbled together from youth players and veterans who have for the most part been frozen out, all it does is give the manager a different sort of headache if he then goes ahead with his plan to return to the players who failed against United and West Ham in the league this weekend. It's a lose-lose situation. But at least for the fans there will be Philippe Coutinho.