Liverpool must stop Philippe Coutinho from joining Barcelona to preserve status
It's been only seven months since a smiling Philippe Coutinho posed for photographs alongside Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp after signing a new five-year contract at Anfield.
"I signed this new contract to stay here for a few more years because it's a great honour for me," Coutinho said at the time. "It gives me great happiness because I was welcomed here with open arms by everyone at the club and the supporters right from my first day.
"I am very thankful to this football club for everything."
Back in January, when Coutinho put pen to paper, Liverpool's success in persuading the Brazil international to extend his commitment to the club was regarded as a genuine coup throughout the game because Barcelona's growing interest in the 25-year-old was an open secret.
And not only did Liverpool secure Coutinho's services until June 2022, they also managed to do so without inserting an escape clause in his contract.
It seemed, after seeing a succession of star names leave Anfield in recent seasons, that Liverpool had learned that they simply had to be on the front foot and be proactive when it came to keeping their best players.
Yet as the summer transfer window enters its final 10 days, Coutinho's future at Liverpool is anything but as certain as it appeared in January.
Barcelona have now tried and failed with three bids for the former Inter Milan playmaker -- the most recent being an offer worth an initial £82.3 million potentially rising to £119m -- and Coutinho has not kicked a ball for Klopp's team this season due to a back injury that is showing little sign of clearing up.
Coutinho, who submitted a transfer request by email earlier this month, is unlikely to play in Wednesday's Champions League playoff second leg against Hoffenheim at Anfield either, so Liverpool and Klopp certainly have a problem on their hands.
Klopp has insisted that Liverpool are not interested in selling their best player, while the club's owners, Fenway Sports Group (FSG), issued a statement to reiterate the manager's stance.
Yet we have been here before with Liverpool, and the next 10 days will tell us whether anything has changed at Anfield or if they remain a club that will ultimately sell when the price is right.
Luis Suarez was deemed not for sale by Liverpool at the end of the 2013-14 season, yet he still started the 2014-15 campaign as a Barcelona player.
The following year, despite consistent claims by former manager Brendan Rodgers that Raheem Sterling would not be sold, the England winger completed a £49m move from Anfield to Manchester City in July 2015.
Suarez, having been suspended by FIFA for biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini while playing for Uruguay during the 2014 World Cup, perhaps left Liverpool with no option but to sell when Barca came calling.
But by that stage, he had unquestionably given his all to Liverpool and almost carried the club to the Premier League title in 2013-14. So while his sale was mourned by supporters, he at least left with the adoration of the Kop assured.
Sterling did not. He forced his way out, citing the ambition to win major trophies, and Coutinho risks filling the same role of villain if he pushes a move through after giving Liverpool and their fans only a glimpse of what he is capable of.
Coutinho has already strayed into dangerous territory with the fans with the speed of his change of heart since January, so even if he stays beyond the Aug. 31 transfer deadline, will he have the appetite to regain their affections?
Perhaps that is all part of the game being played. Liverpool do not want to sell, but Coutinho and his advisors know that he will be more difficult to keep if the supporters turn against him.
But now is the time for Liverpool to be Liverpool and remind the world that they remain one of football's biggest clubs.
They have said all the right things about keeping Coutinho, so now they must be as good as their word.
Otherwise, Coutinho will simply join the list of star players who have built a reputation at Liverpool and then cashed in to "win things" elsewhere.
Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Suarez and Sterling have all left for big clubs, with arguably only Torres having given Liverpool his best years.
Coutinho has many good years ahead of him, but he wants to enjoy them in a Barcelona shirt rather than a Liverpool one.
Who can blame him? Barcelona are serial winners, one of the few who can legitimately describe themselves as a bigger club than Liverpool.
Liverpool, in contrast, have now won just one major honour -- the 2012 League Cup -- in the last 10 years, and their wait for a league title extends back to 1990.
But the problem for Liverpool is that they will find it almost impossible to rediscover the glory days unless they keep their best players.
If Coutinho leaves, their hopes of winning the Premier League this season would diminish considerably, and the club would be back to square one, looking for a new talisman to emerge before, potentially, losing him to Barca or Real Madrid in two or three years' time.
Few Premier League clubs can resist La Liga's two superpowers when they come calling for players, but Liverpool should be one of those capable of saying no to them.
They have done that so far this summer, but we are now entering the decisive stage of the window, and how Liverpool react between now and 11 p.m. on Aug. 31 will tell us a lot about their true position in football's hierarchy.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_