Philippe Coutinho’s apathy sums up how dull Asia Trophy needs overhaul after Premier League opener
Arsenal’s barnstorming 4-3 victory over Leicester City shows how dreary Hong Kong pre-season tournament must make tweaks to match the excitement
When I offered a couple of spare tickets for Liverpool’s second game at last month’s Asia Trophy to my Reds-obsessed mate, I thought he would have snapped my hands off.
Liverpool had not been in Hong Kong for 10 years, and he has lived here as an expat from England even longer.
He thanked me but informed me the atmosphere at the first game had been rubbish.
Luckily for the organisers of the Premier League pre-season event, there were tens of thousands of other Liverpool fans in Hong Kong who didn’t mind shelling out good money to put themselves through a dull, dreary spectacle.
The merchandise was flying off the stalls in the concourses around Hong Kong Stadium – good news, in light of recent research by Global Financial Integrity detailing how Liverpool are struggling to compete with the rampant Chinese counterfeit market in which consumers can purchase similar shirts in sporting goods stores and from online platforms at a fraction of the cost.
But you couldn’t ignore the general apathy in the stands and on the pitch – that is the price you pay when there is a lack of any real incentive for the players.
Philippe Coutinho’s attitude summed the whole thing up.
With speculation mounting throughout the week of the tournament that Barcelona were looking to sign the Brazilian, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp was forced to go on the defensive in all of his press conferences.
“Phil Coutinho is a key player for us, no doubt,” Klopp said after Liverpool’s victory in the final against Leicester City.
“And I know that he feels more than fine and comfortable in Liverpool. He loves the club, he loves the city – all that is clear.”
It seems Coutinho was leading his manager on, if reports he has handed in a transfer request amid a third bid from Barcelona are true.
The 25-year-old looked like he couldn’t really be bothered in Hong Kong. Well, he did seem to care when he was on the pitch – he set up two goals and scored a brilliant long-range effort in Liverpool’s two victories here.
But even with the Hong Kong Stadium crowd serenading his name, he gave the famed muted celebration following his screamer in the final, the trademark of an unsettled player who wants out.
While one can hardly expect players to vigorously celebrate during the trophy celebrations of a pre-season friendly tournament, Coutinho stood at the side of the podium and barely raised a smile as Jordan Henderson lifted the cup.
The signs were there earlier in the week, when Coutinho helped unveil Liverpool’s new third kit in a lavish, overblown ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel’s Ozone Bar.
He gave a sheepish response when asked about how pre-season training was going, shuffling his feet and looking down at the ground as if he knew the game was up.
Another player who starred in Hong Kong, Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez, is also the subject of transfer speculation.
His manager Craig Shakespeare admitted during the tournament that an unsatisfactory bid had been received from Roma.
Despite angling for a move, the 2015-16 Premier League player of the year still dazzled on the pitch, but cut a lonesome figure on the team bus after Leicester’s win over West Bromwich Albion, sitting at the back on his own as he Skyped on his phone.
The dull fare served up in Hong Kong is all the more frustrating when you consider the thrilling fashion in which the new Premier League season was opened this weekend.
Jamie Vardy scored a double as Leicester led twice at Arsenal before conceding two times in the final 10 minutes to lose 4-3 in a barnstormer at the Emirates Stadium.
Just a single goal less was scored in that one match than all four combined at the Asia Trophy, which is remarkable given the tournament was played only three weeks ago.
People will point to the brutal humidity and poor pitch at the Hong Kong Stadium, but making a raft of substitutions that killed the game dead, as well as allowing three-minute water breaks, did not help matters.
Perhaps some tweaks could be made for next time.
How about roll-on, roll-off substitutions, where players can get their necessary water breaks, so as not to break up the flow of the match.
And maybe look to the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens for some inspiration – shortened half-hour matches of two 15-minute halves, so that players can exert fully themselves without risking fatigue.
Why not have two pools of four teams – with the return of some local sides thrown into the mix – play a round-robin system on the Saturday.
Then the top two from each pool can return on the Sunday for the semi-finals, final and a third-place play-off.
That system would eliminate the laborious three-day wait between match days that we saw last month, which halted the momentum of the event.
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Squeeze everything into one action-packed weekend of daytime fun in the sun like the Sevens, with musical performances on the pitch to break up the action.
Encourage the party atmosphere and get the fans involved, otherwise Hong Kong risks being stuck with a lame-duck tournament that may be shifted off to Shanghai if there is a higher bid.
The Premier League has shown that every single game can be a thrill ride, even with the so-called lesser teams like Crystal Palace and West Brom, who were considered the also-rans at the Asia Trophy.
The fact is, when you have any four teams from England’s top flight in one place, there is no excuse not to make that recipe a success.