SOCHI, Russia (AP) — With Neymar hobbling and struggling, the burden to keep Brazil going at the World Cup is suddenly falling on Philippe Coutinho.
The Barcelona playmaker already delivered an outstanding goal in the opener against Switzerland as Neymar was stymied by tough defending and poor fitness. And with the team’s top star not expected to be at his best again for the game against Costa Rica on Friday, it will be up to Coutinho to step forward and try to lead the five-time champions.
“We have a lot of great players in the national team and each one of them has his own responsibility,” Coutinho said. “If everyone does his job, then the team grows and plays well. We can have one player being the protagonist in one game, then another in the next one, but the most important thing is the group.”
On Tuesday, Neymar limped out of practice because of pain in his right ankle. The Brazilian soccer confederation said it wasn’t a serious injury and Neymar would be back in practice on Wednesday, but doubts about his fitness only increased.
Brazil coach Tite said before the tournament started that Neymar wouldn’t likely be fully fit until the third match of the group stage because of the foot injury that sidelined him for about three months earlier this year.
There were expectations he could still carry Brazil despite the ongoing recovery, but his performance in the 1-1 draw against the Swiss disappointed. He was heavily marked and had little space to create chances for his teammates, being fouled 10 times during the game in Rostov-on-Don. The Paris Saint-Germain player was limping when he talked to reporters after the match.
“Neymar is one of the best players in the world and it’s a great plus to have him in the team,” Coutinho said. “When he is on the field he helps us a lot. He is a very important player for us.”
But the spotlight will also be on Coutinho, whose performance against Switzerland contrasted with Neymar’s lackluster showing.
As the Swiss swarmed toward Neymar every time he touched the ball, Coutinho was able to pose a greater threat in attack. His goal — a right-footed shot from outside the area that curled into the top corner in the 20th minute — was one of the best of the tournament so far. The ball pinged in off the post as Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer dived in vain.
A key to Coutinho’s good performances with Brazil has been Barcelona teammate Paulinho, the defensive midfielder who has been responsible for giving the playmaker more freedom to help Neymar and the other forwards.
“I stay back a little bit more so Coutinho can move forward and take advantage of the great quality that he has up front,” Paulinho said.
If Neymar struggles again against Costa Rica in St. Petersburg, another good showing by Coutinho will be crucial for Brazil. Anything but victory could be trouble for the “Selecao.”
The draw against Switzerland, which ended Brazil’s nine-match winning streak in World Cup openers, left the national team two points behind Group E leader Serbia, which defeated Costa Rica 1-0. Brazil’s final game will be against Serbia on June 27 in Nizhny Novgorod.
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