As Bayern Munich launch their Champions League campaign against Red Star Belgrade on Wednesday night, Bavarian hopes of reclaiming European club football’s top prize rest to a large extent on the shoulders of Philippe Coutinho.
Following seven semi-final appearances in the last decade, the former Liverpool midfielder has been hailed as the man who can take Bayern the extra step in European football’s flagship competition this season.
Last season’s defeat to Liverpool in the last 16 sparked fears that Bayern’s Champions League aura was fading.
The departure of veteran stars such as Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben seemed to confirm the end of an era, but Coutinho’s arrival on loan from Barcelona has prompted fresh hope that Bayern can be restored as one of the continent’s most feared sides.
“There are always big expectations at Bayern and of course the Champions League is a goal,” said Coutinho at his unveiling in August.
Many believe that the 27-year-old can inspire Bayern to their first Champions League title since 2013.
Earlier this month, his Brazil team-mate and Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson told German newspaper Bild that Coutinho’s arrival put Bayern among the title favourites this season.
Fellow Bayern midfielder Corentin Tolisso echoed that sentiment in an interview with Sky last month, saying that the loan signings of Coutinho and Croatian winger Ivan Perisic would be decisive for Bayern.
“Before those two arrived, we didn’t necessarily have a team that was capable of winning the treble,” said Tolisso.
“With this team, we can go very far in the Champions League. I think the title is possible.”
Such expectations could weigh heavy on Coutinho, who is looking to reboot his career after struggling to hold down a first-team spot in a year and a half at Barcelona.
His price tag is also a potential burden. Though Bayern paid a loan fee of just 8.5 million euros ($9.5m) to secure his services, German media estimate Coutinho’s wages at around 13 million euros a year after tax, which would make him the highest-paid player in the Bayern dressing room.
“Those things don’t bother me. I want to enjoy being on the pitch, play in big games and win titles. The numbers are just a side note for me,” Coutinho told Sport Bild magazine last week.
The Brazilian has charmed the Munich press so far, promising to learn German and speaking in glowing terms of the welcome he has received at Bayern.
He told Sport Bild that he hoped to emulate the sort of form which once made him a fan favourite at Liverpool.
“I have noticed in my first few games for Bayern that football here is very intense like it is in England. Much more so than in Spain and Brazil. That is good for me,” he said.
Coutinho even claimed he could imagine staying longer at Bayern if the club were to win the Champions League this season.
“That is a big dream for me, similar to winning the World Cup,” he said.
Yet it remains early days for Coutinho, who has made just one start for Bayern in three Bundesliga appearances so far.
He played just 10 minutes in last Saturday’s 1-1 draw at RB Leipzig, with Thomas Mueller preferred in the starting line-up.
Coach Niko Kovac insisted that Coutinho needed time to recover after returning from Brazil following the international break.
“He only had 72 hours recovery time. He will definitely play in the next few games,” said Kovac.
For Coutinho, it seems, the season starts for real on Wednesday against Red Star Belgrade.