Brazil vs Bolivia result: Philippe Coutinho finally thrives as the anti-Neymar to inspire hosts in Copa America opener

Brazil 3-0 Bolivia: The Barcelona star stepped up in the opener for the hosts, who are missing their talisman due to injury

Jack Lang
At the Morumbi, Sao Paulo
Saturday 15 June 2019 08:58
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Neymar hopes to help Richarlison achieve his career goals

As Brazil’s players trudged off after 45 minutes of sleep-walk football at the Morumbi, the crowd finally awoke from their stupor. The boos filled the night air, their message clear. Not good enough. Not by a long shot.

There was plenty of frustration to go round, but one man in particular would have been forgiven for feeling like the lightning rod. Philippe Coutinho had spent the first half scuttling between the Bolivian lines, trying to get his side going. He had also failed to control simple passes and, on one occasion, delicately clipped a ball some 20 yards over the head of Daniel Alves and into touch. There had been literal groans.

This wasn’t how things were meant to go. “The Seleção isn’t only Neymar,” Daniel Alves had said on the eve of Brazil’s Copa América bow. “Now other players have to step forward and take responsibility.” David Neres may have inherited Neymar’s place in the side, but it was Coutinho who was supposed to take on the mantle of craque, protagonist-in-chief.

Tite even gave him more freedom here, moving him into a no-strings No.10 role perfectly suited to his skillset. But as the nerves started to jangle – this really doesn’t take long when the comically impatient Brazilian fans are on the scene – he appeared to shrink into himself.

The first thing to say is that filling Neymar’s boots in the Brazil team is one of the great Sisyphean tasks in modern sport, up there with being Deontay Wilder’s sparring partner or doing PR for Team Sky. Boil the Seleção to a sticky liquor and it basically is Neymar, with all the wonders and warts that entails.

In the local press there had been a few rogue missives, whispered into the wind, to the effect that Brazil could even be better off without their quicksilver prince. This is plainly nonsense, at least from a pure sporting point of view: he is this country’s best footballer by a country mile. You see it in the brute numbers but you also feel it: when he gets the ball you shuffle forward in your seat, and five seconds later you have to remember to breathe again.

Coutinho is an excellent player, but not on the same level. He hasn’t even been at his own level this season, with his struggles at Barcelona – where he replaced... yep – well documented. Nor does he offer anything like the same raw, gravitational star power that Neymar does; in fact, he is really best viewed as the anti-Neymar. If the Paris Saint-Germain forward is the very model of a modern major superstar, Coutinho is a quiet man squinting into the spotlight.

There is a story from the player’s last visit to boyhood club Vasco that underlines his personality. Coutinho appeared at a packed São Januário ahead of a derby against Flamengo last July, holding up his old No.10 shirt and grinning bashfully as fans chanted his name.

Away from the glare of the cameras, though, he was annoyed: he had been hoping that Souza, another Vasco youth product who now plays for Al-Ahli, would also turn up for the occasion. He wanted someone else there to deflect some of the attention.

Brazil celebrate scoring vs Bolivia

You can’t imagine Neymar having the same reaction, but the irony is that the pair have been firm friends since they played for Brazil’s U16 side way back in 2008. There are photos of them from the time, shirts baggy enough to serve as sails. They have both reached the top, but Coutinho has proved that constant headlines are optional, not obligatory.

His fingers-in-ears gesture after scoring against Manchester United was noteworthy precisely because it was so out of character, and was the defining image of a season to forget in Spain.

The talk ahead of the Copa has been of ushering him back to form with some fatherly love. No player has appeared in more games under Tite’s stewardship, and it was surely no coincidence that his best performances over the last 18 months came at the World Cup in Russia.

The coach was eventually rewarded for his loyalty again on Friday night. A VAR review early in the second half presented Coutinho with the chance to kickstart Brazil’s campaign from the penalty spot, and while his run-up was bad-wifi stuttery, his aim was true: the ball zipped past Carlos Lampe and into the bottom corner.

Coutinho stepped up in the absence of Neymar

Shortly afterwards, he added a second, heading in from close range after slick build-up play involving Richarlison and Roberto Firmino. From then on, he looked more like his best self, frictionless and probing. He now has 16 goals in 50 caps – a fine return for a player who spent the first years of his Brazil career climbing on and off the bench.

The hope for Brazil is that the two goals breathe confidence into Coutinho’s bones. They will need the 27-year-old to build on his second-half display if they are to unpick righter defences and fulfil expectations this summer.

Neymar is a big miss. Tite must now put his faith in the meek inheriting the earth.

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