The weeks go by, and the jury is still out.
Philippe Coutinho’s talent is not in question but the Brazilian star continues to flounder when taking the pitch for Barcelona. Just how long will the Catalans tolerate mediocrity from 2018’s superstar signing?
Coutinho remains on the margins of Ernesto Valverde’s plans, unable to make that final jump. While he has missed just two of Barca’s 24 Liga matches so far in 2018-19, no less than eight of his appearances have come off the bench.
Not since January’s win over Girona has the Brazilian been entrusted with the entire 90 minutes, as he has had to settle with sharing time on the pitch with Ousmane Dembele.
Even more worrying for the coach is the fact that when Coutinho is called upon, he has generally failed to meet expectations. Lukewarm displays in key fixtures against Real Madrid and Lyon in recent weeks have laid bare both the playmaker and Barca’s failings in the final third.
The injury to young midfield lynchpin Arthur has left Barcelona in a quandary. The Brazilian provided a precision and depth of passing not easily replaceable in Valverde’s current squad, and presents a classic ‘short blanket’ dilemma when setting up the team tactically.
With Dembele playing Barca gain in speed, but are left chronically lacking in spark and invention in the middle of the pitch.
If Coutinho enters for the Frenchman, as seen in a frustrating second half against Lyon, the Blaugrana add an extra creative dimension while sacrificing that direct outlet to goal.
With Luis Suarez leading the line the team is one-paced and easy to crowd out, wholly dependent on the incursions of Jordi Alba from deep to inject any surprise factor into their offensives.
If either Alba or Lionel Messi is off-key, the whole house of cards seems to collapse, with Barca milling around the opposition penalty area unable to make the breakthrough.
The second half of last Wednesday’s Champions League clash should have been the perfect stage for Coutinho to come in and make his presence felt against a Lyon side that was willing enough but clearly outmatched and holding on for the draw.
But in spite of several impressive early interventions, he eventually caught his side’s general malaise and failed to inspire the team to victory as the game petered out into a dull scoreless stalemate.
That ineffectual Lyon performance sums up Coutinho’s Barca woes.
Signed as the long-term heir to Andres Iniesta, he has not been able to live up to those most demanding of expectations, failing to either sustain sporadic impressive performances on a consistent basis or turn it on when most needed, in the Champions League or in Clasicos against Real Madrid.
Indeed, the murmurs rising from the towering stands of Camp Nou from disaffected fans tend to draw a rather less flattering comparison.
Coutinho is seen as a new Arda Turan, another player of undoubted ability who was expected to run the Barca midfield and instead ended his brief Blaugrana career as a seldom-used stop-gap, running the wing or playing the odd minute with little success.
Inevitably, his struggles have led to reports of a move away. But at least one Barca legend has rallied, calling on his former club to support him in these trying times.
“Barca isn’t an easy club and during my first few months there, I suffered like you,” Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov told Coutinho in an open letter.
“I know how it feels when things aren’t turning out how you want, but I’m convinced that with hard work and sacrifice you’ll move forward because you have all the quality you need to do that. You are one of the best foreign players to have played for Barca.
“Lastly, a small favour. Please do not even think about joining another club, which is something I’ve read might happen in the press…
“Anyway, you wouldn’t find another club with mates like Messi, Suarez and Co. with whom you have a great time doing what you love most – playing football.”
For now a sale does not appear to be on the cards. A possible Manchester United switch is remote, while the most likely scenario, that Chelsea would move to replace Eden Hazard should the Belgian leave for Madrid, has been ruled null and void by the London club’s transfer ban.
Only the arrival of Neymar could endanger his stay, with Coutinho perhaps used as a make-weight in a deal to bring the Paris Saint-Germain winger back to Camp Nou.
PSG have repeatedly insisted that the world’s most expensive player is going nowhere, though, so if Coutinho’s short-term future is at keast secure, then, it is time for him to repay the faith and fee and Barca invested in him just over 12 months ago.
Wednesday’s Copa Clasico is the perfect stage for him to prove his worth: if he falls flat on the big stage once more, pressure will only mount on his shoulders.