City to edge clash of high-flyers

TIME was, when returning from international breaks, South American players would give the distinct impression of having to swim the Amazon, scale the Andes and wrestle with anacondas just to get to the airport.

The difficulties seemed insurmountable and many didn't make it back on time. Their club managers would be driven to distraction at having their main men missing for an extra match or three. Faustino Asprilla and Carlos Tevez were the stars among these "dog ate my boarding pass" merchants.

But now wealthy European clubs have wised up and arrange chartered jets to whisk the reluctant returnees from dressing-room door to dressing room door. It's still not without risk, however.

Manchester City and Liverpool's decision to share the cost of an executive jet from Baranquilla to ensure their Brazilian brigades got back in time for tomorrow's early kickoff at the Etihad made economic sense. It also suggested cordial relations between the two rivals.

But in football terms? Maybe not – what about the in-flight conversation? This is the biggest game of the fledgling season and although none would know of their respective managers' plans for the game, it could hardly avoid being a hot topic as they whiled away the long hours crossing the Atlantic.

City had three men on the plane – Gabriel Jesus, Ederson and Fernandinho to Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firminho. Chelsea chipped in for Willian.

Besides wondering how Messrs Guardiola and Klopp are going to set up their respective sides, what might be called the elephant in the cabin was whether Coutinho will play at all.

The wantaway star came off the bench in Brazil's 1-1 draw with Colombia on Wednesday, but failed to make an impact. He did, however, look reasonably fit. No "back issues", no sign of "illness" but there was no way of knowing the state of his mind. You can bet he was grilled about that on the flight though – as well as his intentions.

Club mates and opponents alike would be sure to ask if there was any truth in the Spanish newspaper report that he wanted to "sit out" Champions League games in order to remain eligible should he move to Barcelona in January.

It may have been pure mischief from a sensationalist rag, but worth an inquiry. In the unlikely event that it is true, just how will he respond? And what will he reveal of his match-readiness anyway?

These are the questions that his manager needs to find answers to and Klopp wouldn't be too happy if the opposition knew before he did. He probably won't decide whether to play Coutinho until he's had a satisfactory response and had the player assessed in training.

But the idea that the opponents would know in advance raises a pertinent question about these shared flights. The days when players were sent to a boot camp before a big game, fed raw meat and shown videos of their opponents' "atrocities" are long over, but these inter-club relationships may just be a little too cosy for the managers' comfort.

Whatever the state of Coutinho's health – mental or otherwise – he does present Klopp with the trickiest man-management problem of his Liverpool tenure. Any perceived softening of attitude would invite allegations of hypocrisy given the hard line he took against that other miscreant, Mamadou Sakho.

It is impossible for managers to avoid such claims as every case is different and seen differently by different people. Coutinho is a better player than Sakho, but in terms of his use to the team? Not by that much and certainly not enough to justify a price difference of more than £100 million (RM550m).

The defender has finally been sold to Crystal Palace for just under £30 million (RM165m) after Liverpool turned down a Barcelona bid for the Brazilian of over £130 million (RM715m). In Coutinho's absence, Liverpool have looked sensational going forward this season. They have not missed him. But they have missed Sakho.

The Frenchman burned his bridges not once but three times, but he was the best defender on the books and has not been replaced.

If Coutinho can convince the Liverpool hierarchy that it was his agent Kia Joorabchian – and given this man's reputation, he has an odds-on chance – who was making all the noise and he is now prepared to knuckle down, he may well be cut a substantial chunk of slack. But he has a lot of convincing to do – on the field.

In short, he has to do "a Suarez" not "a Torres", and if the fans can see he's up for it, they too will forgive him for wanting to leave. In terms of personality, he looks more like a Torres, an introvert to Suarez's extrovert, and introverts sulk. If he chooses that option, his next few months are going to be miserable.

Although the build-up will be dominated by the Coutinho question, there are so many issues to make this the most intriguing clash of the season so far.

The next biggest is whether, after spending £120 million (RM660m) on three fullbacks, City's defence can resist the irresistible force of Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah? There has to be doubts as Pep paid the big bucks primarily for this trio's ability to attack!

There are also the goalkeepers – both of whom have question marks attached. If Ederson has shown similar traits to Claudio Bravo, Simon Mignolet has shown unmistakable signs of reverting to his former self.

Klopp has more on his plate than Pep but his team have been playing better – especially in midfield where City have yet to click. But the two Silvas and Kevin de Bruyne do look a class above Emre Can, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum. In front of a packed Etihad, this would be the moment to turn it on – regardless of what was said on the plane.