Has there been a better player for Brazil in this Copa America than Philippe Coutinho -- and does it mean that coach Dunga needs to give the winger a bigger role in his first-choice squad?
After having fallen out of favor since Brazil crashed out in the quarterfinals of last year's Copa America, the 23-year-old is back for the Centenario and has sparkled in his two appearances so far in the U.S., producing individual moments of brilliance that may force Dunga to reconsider his roster going forward.
Some might argue it's difficult to read too much into this version of the Brazil squad. With their share of absences, most notably Neymar, the missing firepower was apparent in their opening match, where they struggled against Ecuador and finished in a controversial scoreless draw. But both in that opener and in a 7-1 romp past Haiti on Wednesday night, there has been a consistent bright spot: Coutinho, the young winger who seems to have an uncanny knack for creating something out of nothing.
Brazil looked flat overall against Ecuador to open Copa America -- perhaps a symptom of missing players like Neymar, Douglas Costa, Rafinha, Luis Gustavo and others -- and probably should've lost if not for a waved off goal. But Coutinho had a strong individual effort, acting as a constant threat along the left flank while drifting infield and looking arguably his most confident since debuting for Brazil in 2010.
He had two golden chances that could've easily been the difference, including one effort to meet a low Willian cross that forced a great block out of Ecuador goalkeeper Esteban Dreer. More importantly, he set up opportunities for his teammates, such as chasing down an early overpowered pass and crossing back into the box for a Gil chance that the defender couldn't get enough power on.
He followed it up with a splendid hat-trick performance against Haiti that put his abilities on full display, with a long-range blast in stoppage time being the highlight of the match. But it was also Coutinho who started what would become a rousing win with a quick burst in the 14th minute. With the match settled into a lull, he collected a pass, turned and sprinted at goal, taking on three defenders and striking suddenly past Haiti goalkeeper Johny Placide.
To be fair, Haiti, ranked No. 74 in the world, is hardly a powerhouse, but that Coutinho again could lead the way as the top difference-maker against a weaker side that let all of Brazil's roster enjoy a field day is notable. In the early goings, he looks to doing his best to make the case that he is Brazil's standout at Copa America and deserves a closer look from Dunga.
It's not as if Dunga shouldn't be reconsidering his core squad. Six matches into 2018 World Cup qualifying, Brazil have won just two and sits from the outside looking in. Meanwhile, Coutinho is coming off his best club season yet with Liverpool, having swept the team awards and finishing as joint top scorer with 12 goals.
The problem for the Rio de Janeiro native is that a full-strength Brazil, despite their recent stumbles in World Cup qualifying, is a stacked squad that is difficult to break into. As a left winger, he would be competing with the likes of Neymar for a spot.
But Brazil are still far too reliant on Neymar, who may be one of the best players in the world but can't do everything for Brazil, as World Cup qualifying has shown. Coutinho could be a player to take some of the pressure off Neymar and, if he continues playing the way he has, he deserves that chance.
After Dunga dropped Coutinho from Brazil's World Cup qualifying squad last year, he argued that the winger had failed to "seize [his] opportunities" with the national team. But now given another chance, Coutinho is doing exactly that and it's time for Dunga to reward him accordingly.
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