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'Unlike anything I had seen before' - Bijev recalls Coutinho's 'incredible' first impression at Liverpool

09:00 BST 03/05/2020
Philippe Coutinho - Liverpool
The Brazilian attacking midfielder went on to become a star at Anfield and his early days at Melwood represented a thrilling sign of what was to come

Between 2011 and 2014, Liverpool were trying to build a foundation.

The club made what ended up being several major signings, bringing in stars like Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge, two players that were there last June as the club lifted the Champions League trophy. There were some misses and setbacks along the way but it was during that period that Liverpool began what turned out to be a near-decade-long rebirth that has brought them back to the top of the Premier League.

It was also during that period that Villyan Bijev was beginning his career as a professional, having signed his first-ever contract with the Reds in the summer of 2011. A Bulgarian-born, California-raised striker, his big move to Merseyside at 18 years old was a childhood dream come true and, after spending the start of his career on loan, Bijev returned to Melwood and quickly became a part of the reserve team.

During his time with the club, the now-Sacramento Republic star learned that there is quite a difference between good and great, quite a gap between most clubs and Liverpool.

Even at a time where the Reds were trying to rediscover their identity, training with the first team was a wake-up call for Bijev, who, as a forward, was tasked with battling the likes of Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Pepe Reina each and every day.

However, for Bijev, there was one time period that stands out among those tough training sessions: Philippe Coutinho's first week at Liverpool.

The Reds signed the Brazilian star from Inter in January 2013 for £8.5 million ($10.6m), a paltry fee given the nine-figure deal that would seal his move to Barcelona five years later. Coutinho made a total of 201 appearances during his time at Anfield, scoring 51 goals while establishing himself as one of the Premier League's most dynamic attacking players.

Bijev says that Coutinho's skill was apparent from the moment he arrived at Anfield.

"One of the times I trained with the first team was Coutinho's first week," Bijev tells Goal. "His quickness on the ball, I think, stood out to me more than anything. The amount of touches he gets in the small spaces in a small amount of time was definitely incredible and something I hadn't seen before.

"Skrtel, even in training, tackles like a madman. If you saw him coming, it just made you completely uneasy. He would slide-tackle without a care in the world. He was hard-hitting and would do his job, no matter what. So, I'd say his grit and his strength and ability to just go into tackles stood out as well.

"Reina, amazing goalkeeper. His shot-stopping from like point-blank range was super impressive. I think like his reaction time was absolutely amazing. Those guys probably stood out the most.

"It's no surprise that these guys had the careers that they had."

While Bijev was taught several lessons by his veteran team-mates, the forward also recalls witnessing the rise of one of the club's younger stars.

During Bijev's time with Liverpool, Raheem Sterling was widely seen as the club's brightest future star. His five-goal performance against Southend United helped push Sterling from youth player towards the first team, as he made three appearances in 2011-12 before truly breaking through the next season. 

At the time, Sterling wasn't the polished attacking player he is now, but Bijev says it was easy to see the raw talent that the future Manchester City star possessed even at that age.

"I think Sterling was with the second team when I first signed," he recalls. "He was really young at the time but he was still really fast. He was by far the fastest guy on the team, even though he was one of the youngest."

During his tenure as Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers made it a priority to bridge the gap between the first team and the reserves. At the time, the two teams trained in different places and didn't interact much, but Rodgers began the process of uniting the two teams while giving the young players a taste of the first team.

"While I was there, we trained in different places," he said. "You'd get a text either the day of or the night before letting you know, 'Hey we need you in at Melwood at this time tomorrow morning; just be there', and I would say, after the loan, during the year-and-a-half that I was there, I probably trained six to eight times with the first team and every time it was an amazing experience.

"I know Brendan Rodgers really wanted to integrate the younger players in with the older more experienced veterans so they could learn from them. I just think that was absolutely invaluable because, growing up in Fresno playing there, I had no notion of what it was like to be a professional other than what I saw on TV.

"When there's no pro team, to look up to and to train with and to learn from, it makes it a lot harder. So, then being able to go there and transfer over and train with those guys, it was amazing just to see the level that they train at on a daily basis."

In recent years, that gap has been bridged even more. Thanks to a series of FA Cup and League Cup matches, what seems like an army of Liverpool youngsters had the chance to play for the club this season. Trent Alexander-Arnold is the brightest star, but players like Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott have earned valuable senior experience in recent months.

However, Bijev's Liverpool class was not quite as successful when it came to breaking through at Liverpool. Players like Conor Coady, Jordan Ibe and Ryan Kent have gone on to find more success elsewhere as few young players from that 2011-14 period remain with the club.

Bijev's journey since leaving Liverpool has been a winding one, with stops in Bulgaria and, ultimately, the United States. He may not have ever earned his fairy-tale Liverpool breakthrough, but Bijev has found comfort in his new goals after returning to the U.S.

The 27-year-old forward now features for Sacramento Republic FC as the club marches towards a leap towards MLS in 2022.

The striker has made 69 appearances since joining Sacramento, scoring 12 goals, while finding comfort at a club so close to his hometown of Fresno. And with that MLS move coming, there's a bit of uncertainty surrounding what comes next as the club will reshape and rebuild on that road forward, but Bijev is glad to have found a home after all of the lessons learned abroad.

"I'd definitely say out of all the places I've been so far, Sac has done the best for me," he said. "I am really close to home. My parents are able to come to the games. I grew up to two-and-a-half hours from here and came to Sacramento as a kid a lot for tournaments and just to visit as well. So, that made it a lot more familiar to me. It was a lot easier to just open up.

"I've been able to make the best connections with the fanbase here as well, which helps a lot. When you know fans are supporting you, I've also had experiences where, for example, in Bulgaria, I went a couple of games without scoring a goal. And then, all of a sudden, you're not a fan-favourite anymore, the fans don't even want you to play and that can make it extremely difficult to kind of get motivated.

"Whereas here, I've always felt like they've had my back.  I really want to play for them I want to perform for them. The coaches I've had here have been some of the best I've had."

He added: "We have two years to win a USL championship, that's kind of what's on the forefront of our mind because after two years, there won't be Sac Republic USL; it'll be an MLS team now. We have two years of opportunity to win the USL championship and add to the history of Sac."