Lionel Messi will be without Andres Iniesta for the first time in his Barcelona career, placing extra onus on Philippe Coutinho this season.
Two of football’s most iconic jerseys often go hand in hand for football romantics.
Over recent decades, those who dazzle brightest in Brazil’s effervescent yellow and green have tended to try their luck in Barcelona’s blue and red.
Stars of the Selecao have slipped seamlessly into the role of Blaugrana darlings since the master marksman Romario embellished the end of a golden era for Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team.
The taste for a Brazilian number nine in Catalonia was whetted further by Ronaldo’s fleeting and destructive brilliance at Camp Nou. The powerhouse forward scored 47 goals in a single season for Bobby Robson’s Barca.
It became a tale of the 10s, with Rivaldo illuminating some relatively dark hours for the club around the turn of the century, before Ronaldinho inspired a return to prominence and a second Champions League triumph to lay the foundations for the Lionel Messi era.
Then came Neymar, adding magic and mischief to a record-smashing MSN forward line alongside Messi and Luis Suarez, only to decide last year top billing was required.
Five months on from that stunning €222million switch to Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona agreed to pay Liverpool €160m and make Neymar’s compatriot Philippe Coutinho the club’s most expensive player of all-time.
Both lavishly gifted and capable of wreaking havoc in the spaces in front of a defence, the approach of these two Brazil favourites throws up a clear distinction. While Neymar went to Paris to escape Messi’s shadow, Coutinho will channel his playmaking skills to shine a warm and inviting light upon the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s mercurial talents.
How the on-field alliance between Messi and Coutinho flourishes as Barcelona attempt to make it back-to-back LaLiga triumphs under Ernesto Valverde will be intriguing, given it is the club’s first season without Andres Iniesta.
As Iniesta makes merry with showreel goals in the J.League, the indications are Coutinho might help to ensure Messi, Valverde and the rest do not miss a beat.
In 22 appearances across all competitions after joining Barca in January, the 26-year-old hit 10 goals and supplied six assists. Iniesta could still prove masterful at setting his team’s irresistible rhythm but only scored twice and laid on four in 44 appearances overall.
Cup-tied in the Champions League, Coutinho was able to steadily acclimatise to his new surroundings in a title race devoid of pressure after a 3-0 Clasico victory at the Santiago Bernabeu before Christmas.
It meant he arrived at the World Cup as Brazil’s in-form and pivotal performer, while Neymar thrashed around hysterically against injustices imagined or otherwise – his rushed rehabilitation from a broken metatarsal leaving a frayed body and mind.
Coutinho looked enviably at ease on the biggest stage as he cut inside on to his trusty right foot and found the top corner against Switzerland in Brazil’s opening game. You know, that goal from about 25 yards. The one he always scores. Arguably, he sits solely alongside veteran Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben in a having a calling-card strike that opponents know everything about except quite how they might stop it.
That challenge now sits with the rest of LaLiga, while Barcelona’s fans can simply enjoy a sublime performer entering his prime years, from a country with which they recognise common ground in terms of footballing obsession. Coutinho is ready to become their next Brazilian superstar.
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