Play­ers keep fo­cus amid Coutinho trans­fer saga

Spec­u­la­tion over Brazil­ian no dis­trac­tion for rest of team, in­sists Liver­pool captain Hen­der­son

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football - Ja­son Burt CHIEF FOOT­BALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Liver­pool have not been dis­tracted by the on­go­ing saga of Philippe Coutinho want­ing to move to Barcelona, ac­cord­ing to Jor­dan Hen­der­son. The captain said the play­ers had not dis­cussed Coutinho’s de­sire to leave An­field and Liver­pool’s in­sis­tence that the Brazil­ian would stay be­yond the end of the trans­fer win­dow which closes on Thurs­day night.

Liver­pool have re­jected a se­ries of huge bids from Barcelona for their play­maker, the third and high­est of which has been 125 mil­lion eu­ros (£115.3 mil­lion), which would amount to the most ever re­ceived by a Bri­tish club for a player.

A fourth bid may be lodged this week fol­low­ing the com­ple­tion of Barcelona’s deal to bring in French for­ward Ous­mane Dem­bele from Borus­sia Dort­mund for an ini­tial fee of £97 mil­lion, which will rise sig­nif­i­cantly with add-ons, as they try to shore up the club in the wake of Ney­mar’s as­ton­ish­ing de­par­ture.

Coutinho has sub­mit­ted a writ­ten Liver­pool coach Jur­gen Klopp can­not be­lieve the crit­i­cism Me­sut Ozil re­ceives and has told his men to be wary of the Arse­nal play­maker’s skill.

Last week An­field leg­end Steven Ger­rard – now academy man­ager at Liver­pool – branded the Ger­man World Cup win­ner a “li­a­bil­ity” in the wake of his anony­mous dis­play in the 1-0 loss at Stoke.

Ozil will be on show at An­field to­day, and Klopp said: “He is an out­stand­ingly skilled boy. If peo­ple are not happy with him, I don’t know why. There is no doubt in Ger­many about the qual­ity of Me­sut Ozil.” trans­fer re­quest and is said by friends to be “sad” and frus­trated he has not been granted his dream move but Hen­der­son in­sisted it had not un­set­tled the dress­ing room. The Liver­pool captain said: “As play­ers and pro­fes­sion­als, you ex­pect things to hap­pen, es­pe­cially when trans­fer win­dows are open and stuff like that. That’s the na­ture of foot­ball at times. You’ve got to get on with it.

“As play­ers, you fo­cus on what’s im­por­tant – play­ing foot­ball and do­ing your job. And I’ve felt we have done that bril­liantly over the last few weeks. We need to carry that on.”

Asked whether it was easy to ig­nore what was go­ing on – and with Coutinho still un­avail­able for Liver­pool af­ter a back prob­lem and ill­ness – as they pre­pare to face Arse­nal at home to­day in the Premier League, Hen­der­son added: “It is. At the end of the day, what­ever hap­pens – play­ers coming in and go­ing out – you have to stick to­gether as a team and fo­cus on what is im­por­tant. That’s play­ing well and win­ning your games, and hope­fully we can do the same again against Arse­nal.”

As captain, it might have been ex­pected that Hen­der­son, who has told Coutinho he wants him to stay, would have spo­ken to the rest of the play­ers. But he says that is not the case and was not nec­es­sary. “We’ve just con­tin­ued to get on with the job as nor­mal,” he said. “We have started pretty well, we al­ways want to im­prove and hope­fully we can now kick on against Arse­nal.”

Liver­pool go into the en­counter now qual­i­fied for the group stages of the Cham­pi­ons League – where, in Group E, they will face Spar­tak Moscow, Sevilla and Mari­bor – af­ter their thump­ing 6-2 ag­gre­gate vic­tory over Hof­fen­heim.

Hen­der­son said: “We feel as though we are in a good mo­ment. We’ve started well – we’ve four points from six [in the Premier League] and would have liked six from six, but there are still a lot of pos­i­tives. There are still a lot of things to work on. That’s al­ways the case, but we played ex­cel­lently in the first 20 min­utes against Hof­fen­heim so we have to be con­fi­dent go­ing into the Arse­nal game be­fore the in­ter­na­tional break.”

In that pe­riod against the Ger­man side, Liver­pool scored three times. And there have been plenty of goals – an av­er­age of 4.4 a game for the past eight fix­tures – when they have come up against Arse­nal, who may bring back Alexis Sanchez. He, like Coutinho, had hoped to move away this sum­mer.

But un­like Coutinho, it ap­pears Sanchez is rec­on­ciled to stay­ing for the fi­nal year of his con­tract at least, although Manch­ester City are ex­pected to test that with a late bid for the Chilean this week.

Liver­pool boasted the best record against the top six sides in the Premier League last sea­son and un­der man­ager Jur­gen Klopp have lost only once at home against one of those, Manch­ester United. They beat Arse­nal con­vinc­ingly, 3-1, last March at An­field in a game where it first be­came pub­licly ap­par­ent Sanchez wanted to leave as he was dropped to the bench be­fore coming on at half-time.

Af­ter that, Sanchez’s fu­ture be­came un­clear and was cer­tainly a dis­trac­tion for Arse­nal, who ended up fin­ish­ing out­side the top four. And, although they won the FA Cup, it was the first time they had not qual­i­fied for the Cham­pi­ons League in man­ager Arsene Wenger’s two-decade reign.

Liver­pool are now back in the Euro­pean big time them­selves, with their play-off win against Hof­fen­heim. And Hen­der­son be­lieves that, de­spite Coutinho’s un­hap­pi­ness, the team are in a good sit­u­a­tion, with the mid­fielder him­self glad to be back from in­jury.

“It was im­por­tant for me to get a good pre-sea­son un­der my belt,” he said. “I feel as good as ever. I feel fit. It was a tough pre-sea­son.”

It has been a tough sum­mer, also, for Liver­pool, who have faced frus­tra­tion in the trans­fer mar­ket – not least in their pro­tracted at­tempts to sign Vir­gil van Dijk from Southamp­ton and Naby Keita from RB Leipzig. Hold­ing on to Coutinho, how­ever, re­mains the pri­or­ity be­fore Thurs­day’s dead­line, even if the club are braced for an­other ef­fort from Barcelona to prise him away. £34 mil­lion they paid Va­len­cia last sum­mer. In­ter Mi­lan and Ju­ven­tus are in­ter­ested.

Arse­nal are not lin­ing up any im­me­di­ate re­place­ment for Mustafi, de­spite their in­ter­est in Southamp­ton’s Vir­gil van Dijk, and be­lieve they have suf­fi­cient cen­tre-back cover in Lau­rent Ko­scielny, Per Merte­sacker, Rob Hold­ing, Calum Cham­bers and Na­cho Mon­real, as well, po­ten­tially, as Sead Ko­lasinac.

One deal that is close is the sale of Gibbs to Wat­ford. Gibbs has been at Arse­nal since 2004 af­ter coming through their academy.

Perez is also ex­pected to fi­nalise a move away from Arse­nal be­fore the clo­sure of the win­dow. The sit­u­a­tion in terms of in­com­ing play­ers could change if key tar­gets such as Van Dijk or Thomas Le­mar be­came avail­able but Arse­nal’s feel­ing is that it would be bet­ter to wait un­til next year in the hope that such deals be­come fea­si­ble, rather than com­mit re­sources to what they would re­gard as lesser op­tions now.

Wenger be­lieves Alexan­dre La­cazette will prove one of this sum­mer’s big­gest bar­gains. Arse­nal travel to Liver­pool to­day un­der ma­jor pres­sure due to a prof­li­gate 1-0 de­feat at Stoke. If Arse­nal are go­ing to chal­lenge for their first ti­tle since 2004, they will need hefty con­tri­bu­tions from the former Lyon man and Sanchez, who is avail­able again af­ter an ab­dom­i­nal in­jury.

“La­cazette is more of a com­bi­na­tion player than a fin­isher,” said Wenger. “If you look at his num­bers, the quan­tity of his fin­ish­ing com­pared to the rest of Europe is a bit be­low. But the qual­ity of his fin­ishes is top. He is a guy who doesn’t shoot a lot, but when he shoots, he fin­ishes.”

‘It is easy to ig­nore. What­ever hap­pens, play­ers coming in, play­ers go­ing out, you stick to­gether as a team’

Eye on the ball: Jor­dan Hen­der­son is only con­cerned with beat­ing Arse­nal to­day, de­spite all the talk about Liver­pool los­ing their Brazil­ian tal­is­man Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona

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