Can Philippe Coutinho step out of Neymar’s shadow to shine at the World Cup? Brazil need another star to emerge if they are to go all the way in Russia, writes Adam Bate.
The relationship between Philippe Coutinho and Neymar is a long one. In 2015, the Brazil team-mates even recreated a famous image of the pair together as teenagers. They first met in 2008 at the International Mediterranean Cup in Spain. The following year they were in the same side at the Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria. Even then, Neymar was the star.
There are only fourth months between them but the hierarchy has long been established. Coutinho has called Neymar "a mirror of the player I want to be" and summed up Brazil's approach in a recent interview. "He is the guy who decides a lot of games, a guy that is fundamental to our national team," he said. "We give the ball to him and he sorts it out."
But in Brazil's opening game against Switzerland it was Coutinho cast in the role of problem solver. When the ball came to him in his favoured zone on the left edge of the penalty box, he was afforded the space to set himself. That was all that he needed to open the scoring, firing off a curling effort that found the back of Yann Sommer's net via the far post.
It was the perfect illustration of why Tite has reshaped his team to get Coutinho into a deeper role. Previously used out wide on the right, the Brazil coach has recognised the need to have greater creativity and penetration from deep to find a way past packed defences. The more that opponents back off, the more risk of being hurt by Coutinho from distance.
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"Whatever qualities that you think are important in a footballer, he has them," Tite told reporters recently. "The whole of Coutinho's work is very strong. He has passing ability, competitiveness, effectiveness from medium distance, speed of thought and execution, assists, and now a greater maturity, which is also important."
Only Marcelo had more touches of the ball on Sunday night in Rostov and Brazil's left side looks particularly potent. With Coutinho drifting out to that flank to link up with the full-back and with Neymar ahead of them both, Brazil aim to create overloads. If there is a concern for Tite, it is that this only attracts more markers towards Neymar.
He is at his best in one-on-one situations but such opportunities are at a premium when he is receiving so much attention from the opposition. Ordinarily, Neymar is able to make light of that - 55 international goals at the age of 26 reveals that much. But having not played for Paris Saint-Germain since February, the forward is still edging his way back to full fitness.
"Neymar, we have to watch out for him, he might not be able to be fully fit but his recovery has been good," Tite had acknowledged in his pre-match press conference. "Neymar is not 100 per cent yet but he is very privileged physically, his sprinting capacity and his speed is very impressive, he has not lost that yet, but he is not 100 per cent yet."
In that respect, there are echoes of four years ago when Neymar was injured in Brazil's quarter-final victory over Colombia. Luiz Felipe Scolari's under-pressure side could not cope with the psychological loss of their star player, the tournament's poster boy, and were ill-equipped to find another way to win - instead suffering their spectacular loss to Germany.
At least Coutinho, overlooked for that World Cup on home soil, is free from those particular scars. That Brazil were pegged back and could only draw 1-1 with Switzerland suggests that the team as a whole still has work to do to convince everyone that they really have grown since that semi-final debacle in 2014. This time, it cannot all be about Neymar.
Is Coutinho ready to step up? Sunday's strike was an encouraging sign and there would be a certain irony to it given that he was effectively the replacement for his international team-mate at Barcelona in January. Neymar left because he did not want to be in Lionel Messi's shadow any longer. He had even hoped that Coutinho would join him in Paris instead.
Instead, the former Liverpool midfielder has accepted the role of Messi's foil at Barcelona. It is one he is well used to with Neymar too. But perhaps it is time for Coutinho to truly mirror the responsibilities of the player that he says he wants to be and emerge as the alternative star of Tite's team. Brazil's World Cup ambitions could well hinge on it.
Tite: Swiss foul was clear
Brazil coach Tite was convinced Switzerland's equaliser should have been ruled out for a foul.
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