Philippe Coutinho stepping out of Neymar's shadow
Liverpool ace had plenty of promise - but is now delivering on his world-class potential
Liverpool's boy from Brazil is coming of age. Despite Philippe Coutinho's potential, the question lingered of when or if he would elevate himself to world-class status. For both club and country, this is becoming a breakthrough season, with Coutinho the outstanding performer in Liverpool's emerging title bid.
The 24-year-old transferred his impressive domestic form to the international stage with a stunning goal against Argentina in midweek, prompting renewed expectation of a bid from Barcelona. For those who assisted Coutinho's development, this is his time.
"His ambition is to be in the list of the top 10 players [in the world]," says Rodney Goncalves, Coutinho's former youth coach at Vasco da Gama.
"The Brazil squad needed to renew itself after the World Cup and everybody expected that he would be selected. Now he is, and this moment is very special. With Neymar and Coutinho playing together again, they are seen as the couple that can give us a lot of titles. They played together in the Brazilian youth teams and were the players who stood out when they played against each other in the youth sides for Vasco da Gama versus Santos.
"Coutinho can be compared to Neymar, but Coutinho is Coutinho. He can become a very popular in Brazil and around the world like Neymar, he just needs to get a sequence of games in the Brazilian squad.
"There is pressure on him but it is not a problem. He plays at a big club and plays in the most important league in the world."
The Liverpool man was once considered ahead of Neymar when his country looked to its next generation.
"Coutinho started at Vasco da Gama in 2000, when he was just eight years old," says Goncalves, still a close friend of the Liverpool forward. "He always played futsal when he was young, and the scouts of Vasco da Gama brought the information about this young player who was giving great performances during the school tournaments. That was when he was signed and I had the pleasure to coach him in the under-17 team.
"Normally players need to time to adapt and understand the new targets, but once he joined us it was immediate. The first game I remember we were leading 2-0 towards the end and I decided to send him on. It was a hard game, but some supporters who'd seen him for the younger sides were already singing his name 'Coutinho, Coutinho'. There were 10 minutes to play and when I looked at him I could see how much he wanted to go on. He scored two and made an assist, turning a difficult game into an easy 5-0 win. He had a different way of understanding the game."
Coutinho was headhunted by Inter Milan at 16, joining two years later in 2010. He was declared "the future of Milan" by then manager Rafa Benitez, but within three months his journey to Liverpool was beginning.
The night Inter Milan played Tottenham in the San Siro in October 2010 is remembered for Gareth Bale's hat-trick, but Coutinho was involved in two of Inter's goals in the 4-3 win.
Michael Edwards, last week named Liverpool's sporting director, was Spurs' head of analytics then. Barry Hunter, now Liverpool's chief scout, was watching for Manchester City. Edwards's duty was to assess the threat of Samuel Eto'o and Wesley Schneider, but Coutinho stood out.
Despite an encouraging start, by 2013 Coutinho's progress in Italy had stalled, not helped by six managerial changes in three years.
"The Italian football was different and a difficult way to play," says Goncalves. "He was young and soft - he needed more time to adapt to the Italian style. All Brazilian players have a dream to play in their club's first teams and after that play in Europe. But in his case it was difficult because he was a young boy and he didn't ever get the chance to play in the first team of Vasco da Gama before he moved.
"It was only after Inter Milan, when he was loaned to Espanyol, that he had the chance to develop his skills and understand the new reality of playing at that level of football." Mauricio Pochettino took hold of the youngster in Spain, later trying to take him to Southampton. By then, Edwards and Hunter were part of newly installed Liverpool recruitment team.
They were considering a bid for Partizan Belgrade's Lazar Markovic, who they would later sign from Benfica. A £5million offer to re-sign Tom Ince was also lodged in December 2012. Blackpool chairman Karl Oyston was not answering his phone. In mid-January, another of Liverpool's recently appointed scouts Dave Fallows - who had watched Coutinho shine against Fiorentina that September - was informed that the Italians' finances made the youngster disposable. He was shocked.
Liverpool's South American scout, Fernando Troiani, was pivotal in triggering negotiations with Coutinho's representatives as the club tried to beat the Saints. Coutinho indicated Liverpool was his preference.
Brendan Rodgers enthusiastically embraced the idea and Ian Ayre agreed the €10million deal on the day Liverpool lost to Oldham in the FA Cup on January 27, 2013. Edwards and Hunter completed the successful work permit application with over three years of analysis.
Now Coutinho's game has evolved to the point where he and Neymar may soon be on the same pedestal again. The expectation remains that his final destination will be wearing the same jersey as Neymar for both club and country.
Yet Goncalves has a message for worried Liverpool fans. He is sure Coutinho has far more he wants to achieve at Anfield.
"He always says he is very happy at Liverpool and his biggest challenge is to win the Premier League and Champions League with them," says Goncalves. "He knows that if he continues to give great performances for Liverpool, he will always be selected for Brazil."