The numbers on their shirts indicate their significance. Philippe Coutinho and Eden Hazard clash on Saturday as the creators in chief, the men charged with bringing style to a fixture that has often contained snarl. When Liverpool host Chelsea, the two No. 10s could command the attention.
It would not be the first time. Go back to the 2015-16 season, and Hazard scored a brilliant solo goal at Anfield. Coutinho struck twice at Stamford Bridge to deliver Liverpool’s first major win under Jurgen Klopp. Rewind to Saturday, and each indicated that he is in the form to decide a potentially season-defining game. Coutinho scored one goal and made another in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Southampton. Hazard struck twice after playing a pivotal part in Alvaro Morata’s opener in Chelsea’s 4-0 demolition of West Bromwich Albion.
The surprise might be not that they star but that they are still there. For all the focus on the Premier League’s supposedly superstar strikers and despite the brilliance of Kevin De Bruyne, they might be the division’s two Galacticos in waiting. Hazard has been linked with Real Madrid for years. Coutinho wanted to join Barcelona in the summer. The Catalan club offered £136 million, enough to make him the second-most expensive footballer ever and insisted Liverpool demanded £177m, a claim the Merseysiders rejected.
Nevertheless, it is very possible that this is his valedictory season in England. It might be Hazard’s, too: Earlier this month, he said it would be “a dream” to play for Zinedine Zidane. But he and Real have been dancing around each other for years. Still no move has materialised.
That might render Hazard unlucky. When Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez were the Premier League’s outstanding individual, each got a transfer to either Madrid or Barca. Hazard has been its best attacking player for two of the past three seasons, albeit separated by a precipitous drop in form that might have been off-putting to suitors.
The fact that he has stayed put might reflect the division’s relative decline in an era in which Spanish sides have dominated in Europe. Being the best in England was no longer enough. At times in the past few years, the most compelling attackers outside the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu have belonged to Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich or Juventus, not the English clubs. Time could be running out. Hazard will be 27 in January. He might be destined to be a Benelux Sergio Aguero, forever tipped to join Real but never actually doing it.
He has existed in a strange sort of limbo, forever applying for a job that is already filled. The reality is that there are few such openings: There are only six first-choice forwards at Spain’s two superclubs. Lionel Messi has claimed one position for more than a decade, Ronaldo another for eight years. Suarez and Bale have tended to occupy two others, though Isco might be displacing the Welshman. Karim Benzema, displaying a staying power that has enabled him to defy predictions by doggedly holding on to a spot, is both Galactico and anti-Galactico. Until Neymar dramatically abdicated to inject urgency into Barcelona’s pursuit of Coutinho, there were no situations vacant.
Much of the traffic has been from Spain to England, not vice versa. The Premier League been an escape for those — Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil, Morata, Pedro — no longer or never deemed a first choice or those who were sacrificed to fund more glamorous additions. Coutinho could both buck a trend and renew a tradition.
His habit of delivering a disproportionate number of his goals in big games might add to his appeal to Barcelona, suggesting that he has the character as well as the quality to flourish at the Camp Nou. Still more significantly, he offers something Hazard does not: Although he would command a Galactico‘s price tag, he would actually slot into the supporting cast.
When Chelsea and Liverpool met at the start of last season, their No. 10s occupied similar roles, each on the left of a front trio in a 4-3-3. Their paths have diverged since then. Hazard moved infield, first as one of two No. 10s in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-2-1 formation and then as the lone, roaming flair player in a 3-5-1-1. Coutinho has dropped deeper: Liverpool should still play 4-3-3 on Saturday, but he is likely to be on the left of the central three, with Sadio Mane immediately ahead of him.
Klopp’s reshuffle was designed to accommodate Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino as well as Coutinho and Mane. He is also giving a glimpse of the potential Barcelona Coutinho. With Ousmane Dembele installed as the new Neymar, he seems earmarked as Andres Iniesta’s long-term replacement in midfield.
If Iniesta is irreplaceable, Coutinho is at least a stylistic fit. It means the midfield battle in Clasicos could be contested by men sometimes wrongly described as too lightweight for the hurly-burly of Premier League battles. Like Luka Modric, Coutinho is a technical talent in a position where the English have tended to expect more overt physicality. Slight figures have confounded doubters. But without taking anything away from their achievements, they could illustrate that it might be slightly easier to secure a move to Real or Barcelona as a midfielder. As Hazard can testify, competition to become their forward signings is so fierce that even the finest can go unsigned.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.