Reunited: Old friends Coutinho and Neymar ready for World Cup bid

The duo first played together almost a decade ago and, after the Liverpool man broke into the Brazil side, will be hoping to lead the Selecao to glory in 2018

Cutting inside from the left, Philippe Coutinho smashed an unstoppable drive past Sergio Romero that would set Brazil on their way to a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Argentina.

The Selecao’s second that night was dispatched by Neymar, securing his 50th goal for his country. Coutinho, by contrast, is yet to break double figures for the Selecao.

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Childhood friends, Neymar and Coutinho have had markedly different Brazil careers to date. While the Barcelona superstar has been a fixture of the Selecao since 2011, and was captain of the side for two years, Coutinho had constantly found himself on the periphery of the Selecao since World Cup 2014.

Not only was his preferred position the same as Neymar’s – cutting in from wide left – he found the likes of Douglas Costa, Hulk, Willian and Oscar all ahead of him in the pecking order.

But, having ousted the previously immovable Willian from the front three in recent months, the Liverpool star ended 2016 as Brazil’s joint-top scorer, with five of his six international strikes to date arriving during this calendar year. And now two old friends are relishing their reunion. 

Neymar and Coutinho first played together as15-years-olds, when they kicked off their international careers in Brazil’s youth teams. Both were seen as future stars, Coutinho at Vasco and Neymar at Santos.

But, while Neymar resisted mega-money offers from abroad to continue his development at Santos, leading the club to their first Copa Libertadores title since the days of Pele, Coutinho headed for Europe, joining Italy’s Inter Milan for around €4 million before his 18th birthday.

Neymar wowed from the moment he stepped onto the pitch at senior level, but Coutinho found his transition harder going. In and out of the team in Italy, he endured a mixed loan spell with Espanyol in La Liga before finally getting a chance in Italy.

It was only when Inter tightened the purse strings under Rafa Benitez that Coutinho saw anything like an extended run in the first team.

“He was the first to give me a chance, he gave me confidence,” said Coutinho.

However, Coutinho failed to make anything like the impact he would have hoped for in Serie A and his 2013 switch to Liverpool in England’s Premier League was described as a ‘gamble’ by the media in both countries.

To say it has paid off would be an understatement. Secured for under £10 million, Coutinho has been a revelation at Anfield. In May of this year he repeated 2015’s feat of claiming all four Player of the Year awards at the club.

Since breaking into the Brazil side under Tite, he has played a huge role in the formation of a fluid forward line that previous coach Dunga spent much of his two years attempting to implement.

While Willian was left completely isolated on the wide right in Tite’s early matches, Coutinho is drifting across the line with much greater frequency; movement which resulted in both goals against Peru last time out.

It was he who set up Gabriel Jesus’ opener by drifting inside after Dani Alves and Renato Augusto had caused the Peruvian backline to become preoccupied with what was happening out wide.

For the second, Coutinho had dropped deep, left of centre, leaving space for Augusto to exploit and seal all three points.

Coutinho has also linked extremely well with Neymar, helping to provide the passing angles the Barcelona star so sorely lacked when in possession during the previous coach.

With 2016 having drawn to a close for the Selecao, Coutinho and Neymar are set to play a major role in securing World Cup qualification next year.

Then their attentions will turn to the big one. In 2011, Neymar’s involvement with the senior squad meant he could not share under-20 World Cup success with his mate.

In 2018 they will finally get the chance to go in search of a world title together. And few would bet against the old friends having a major impact on the competition.

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