Coutinho stages a coup
Little genius outshines Messi to bring hope to Brazil
(Philippe Coutinho 25, Neymar 45, Paulinho 59)
Never mind the back streets of Belo Horizonte, they should be dancing on the cobbles of Liverpool.
Philippe Coutinho is quietly morphing into one of the most exhilarating mavericks in world football.
The dazzling Brazilian reduced Lionel Messi to an afterthought yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Messi was expected to lift Argentina out of their current poverty and return them to World Cup prosperity. But he was equally bankrupt of ideas.
La Albiceleste were pickpocketed by the Artful Dodger.
Coutinho, along with Neymar, was everywhere.
Two years ago at the same venue, the Selecao were nowhere.
The last time Brazil ran out in Belo Horizonte, the samba swiftly gave way to nationwide shrieking. Germany humbled the hosts 7-1 at the 2014 World Cup.
But two men were missing.
Neymar was injured. Coutinho was left out of the World Cup squad, one of the more startling omissions from the erratic Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Looking back, Brazil's semi-final line-up against Germany had no room for Coutinho, but included Hulk, Fred and Bernard.
So the venue witnessed something of a rebirth yesterday morning - the same stadium, the same jersey, but different personnel and a different philosophy.
For the Selecao, old is new once more.
With Neymar nominally on the left and the mesmeric Coutinho on the right, the thumping samba rhythms returned to Belo Horizonte.
The boys are truly back in town. There were moments - brief, tantalising moments - when Brazil's football stirred parts of the soul seldom reached in recent years.
Their opening goal, for instance, was a glorious reminder that this kind of football, born on the beaches and fashioned in the favelas, originated from the men in yellow.
Neymar and Coutinho, combining again, wandered over to the left flank and the Barcelona star released the Liverpool winger with a cheeky pass.
Coutinho cut inside the static Argentine defence and smashed a curler into the far corner, ripping bums from seats and sofas everywhere.
Neymar later scored his 50th goal for his country and the resurgent Paulinho, the old Tottenham reject resurrected under coach Tite, added a third.
But Coutinho played the conductor.
In recent years, he appeared reluctant to take the baton. His talent was never in doubt, only his temperament and consistency.
The 24-year-old encapsulated the flaky artist, brilliant in short bursts, but annoyingly absent for long spells.
Niggling knocks only reinforced the stereotype that here was another nifty winger with a complete skill-set only to be lumbered with the upper body strength of a wet paper bag.
But Juergen Klopp and Tite, his coaches at club and country respectively, have removed the handcuffs and thrown away the key.
His outstanding goal was not only his fifth in seven games for Brazil, helping to steer the flying nation to the top of the Conmebol standings, but it was also indicative of his new-found confidence.
Wriggling into a pocket of space like a mouse squeezing through a crack in the door, Coutinho summoned the arrogance to ignore his teammates and take on the strike.
The goal summed up Coutinho's season in a second. In Liverpool, the Scousers are seeing this stuff every week.
He's making magic almost look mundane. If the Brazilian maintains his form and fitness, Liverpool can win the English Premier League with this guy.
Pablo Zabaleta and Nicolas Otamendi play for Manchester City, the pre-season title-favourites. But they twisted the night away chasing a shadow.
Argentina's defenders were left battered and dazed, as if they were seeing three disappearing blurs before them. And in some respects, they were.
Along with Coutinho and Neymar, Gabriel Jesus led the line with remarkable maturity for a 19-year-old.
The teenage speedster from Palmeiras is on his way to Man City in January. He already looks an astute signing.
Tite deserves great credit for transforming the jittery, cautious basket cases left behind by Dunga into swaggering, table-topping contenders.
Each radical step forward takes Brazil further back to their halcyon days of global domination. Their liberated forwards have swept aside the World Cup finalists without breaking sweat.
Two years ago, the Selecao ran out at Belo Horizonte with Fred, Bernard and Hulk up front.
Yesterday morning, they returned with Neymar, Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus.
The trio skipped around Argentina's training cones like giggling toddlers playing tag on a beach.
It was that easy.
And in the middle of it all was the majestic lad from Liverpool.
Right now, Coutinho floats like a butterfly and stings like a Scouser.
"There’s a reason he is called the Magician. With his passes, Coutinho opens the lines, creates space. I like his mobility, he was influential in both games (the previous month) when he came on. It was a difficult decision for me but, right now, this is Coutinho’s moment. And in football, you have to follow the moment."
— Brazil coach Tite on Philippe Coutinho
"Playing against Argentina has always been a big dream, every child dreams of wearing the shirt of Brazil and playing a classic like this. But, of course, we are still trying to achieve our ultimate goal, which is qualifying for the World Cup. Today, we prevailed on the field, the crowd helped a lot since the first whistle. We leave here very happy."
— Brazil star Philippe Coutinho
- Brazil 3 Argentina 0
- Uruguay 2 Ecuador 1
- Colombia 0 Chile 0
- Venezuela 5 Bolivia 0
- Paraguay 1 Peru 4
WED (S’PORE TIME)
- Bolivia v Paraguay (4am)
- Ecuador v Venezuela (5am)
- Argentina v Colombia (7.30am)
- Chile v Uruguay (7.30am)
- Peru v Brazil (10.15am)
*The top four finishers in South America’s standings qualify automatically for the 2018 Finals in Russia. The fifth-placed side face a play-off.