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Where Neymar failed in existing alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona, Philippe Coutinho looks set to thrive

Where Neymar failed in existing alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona, Philippe Coutinho looks set to thrive

The former Liverpool man will not feel as directly threatened by the presence of the world's best player

FOR Neymar, in the end, the numbers just didn’t add up. 

Not those on his pay checks or in the goals column – they were always pretty damn good – but those on his birth certificate. The 1687-day age difference between him and Lionel Messi was meant to be the perfect buffer, a launch ramp to superstardom, but it proved to be too small: by the time the Brazilian was ready to take flight, the glass ceiling was still intact.

Perhaps Neymar could have been more patient. At 25, his best years are likely still ahead of him. But you can understand his impatience: Messi is still a freak of a player at 30 and the chances of him fading into a supporting role in the next three or four seasons are slim to vanishing. For a young man so obviously fuelled by dreams of protagonismo, the only option was to skip town and strike out alone.

At which point, six months down the line, enter Philippe Coutinho, the Brazilian to replace the Brazilian. Not strictly positionally, perhaps, but certainly in terms of status: it is dangerous to read too much into transfer fees these days, but it is clear that £142million isn't squad-player money. The question now is whether the second-costliest footballer in history (with a small Kylian-Mbappé-shaped asterisk) can do what the costliest was supposed to, and lead Barcelona into a bright new future while respecting the Messi-centric power balance.

There are obvious resonances here, not least because the careers of Neymar and Coutinho have long been entwined. The two have been friends since representing Brazil at an U16 tournament in Girona in 2008; you will probably have seen the photos of them together, looking sheepish in oversized shirts. "It was instinctive," Coutinho later revealed. "We have a similar way of playing, so we kept looking for each other. We had a good connection and had a lot of fun."

Both have admitted that they drifted apart a touch after Neymar made the step up to the senior Brazil side, but a mutual affection remained: Coutinho called Neymar "an idol and an example of the kind of player I want to be"; Neymar has spoken fondly of their "great friendship" as youngsters. By the time Neymar floated the idea of Coutinho coming to the Camp Nou last year, the relationship had been rekindled at international level, to the extent that the two met up socially in Rio last summer. 

Neymar's wish – "The player I'd most like to play with at Barcelona is Coutinho" – never came true, of course, but there is nonetheless a pleasing circularity to his Seleção cohort stepping into his shoes. "While Neymar was dreaming of leaving Barcelona, with the intention of becoming one of the greats, the excellent Coutinho was dreaming of becoming a great supporting actor at Barcelona, alongside Messi, and winning titles," wrote former Brazil midfielder Tostão this week. "Neymar and Coutinho, each with a different level of talent and different ambitions, are pursuing their desires with courage."

That talent line is instructive; for all his ability, no one could really argue that Coutinho is as good a footballer as Neymar. The former Vasco da Gama man is a joy to watch on his day, but in truth was never even close to being the best player in the Premier League during his five full seasons at Liverpool, who should be delighted to have squeezed so much money from Barça.

But the signing is perhaps a logical reaction to the Neymar mess, and a solution (albeit an expensive one) to the problem of buying great footballers when you have the best of all time on your books: Coutinho – who, unlike Neymar, has had to navigate setbacks in his career – is unlikely to get itchy feet during Messi's encore years. He is less hell-bent on winning individual prizes, less comfortable in the spotlight, happier to quietly go about his business.

There is an elephant in the room here, of course. Ousmane Dembélé's injury troubles have reduced him to a minor role so far this season, but he is probably the key to the Camp Nou succession puzzle. The Frenchman, who is two-footed and blessed with blistering pace, is both a natural fit in a wide forward role if Ernesto Valverde decides to reinstate a 4-3-3 system, and a more likely long-term talisman for the post-Messi era. At 20, he has greater potential for growth than Coutinho, and the timings should line up better then they did with Neymar.

On this reading, the question of a Neymar-sized hole starts to look moot, the £142million almost a misnomer. Coutinho is a star, his arrival belatedly helping to offset his friend's departure, but he might not be destined for star billing. 

Is that an issue, for either player or club? Not really. If he can learn from Messi, and from Andrés Iniesta, for whom he is likely to be a more direct replacement, he can help to blur the lines between two eras.






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Jack Lang
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