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Brazil built their team around Neymar, but Coutinho has been the star so far

When Brazil has needed a moment, it’s been Coutinho who has provided it.

Brazil v Switzerland: Group E - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Entering this World Cup, no one was really sure about who would be in the Brazil starting lineup. The back four was pretty set, we had an idea for midfield, but the attacking three were up in the air. Would it be Firmino? Gabriel Jesus? Willian? Coutinho? Douglas Costa?

The only name set in stone for the top three: Neymar.

After three games, which saw Brazil stumble a little early though ultimately win Group E, the compelling thing wasn’t that coach Tite made picks out of those glut of names. It’s that one of those names — Coutinho — has actually been the star of the team so far.

Neymar is one of the very best in the world, and has fluctuated between frustrating and excellent in the opening three games. He demands attention whenever he has the ball. He’s clearly one of their emotional leaders.

But when Brazil has needed a spark, it’s been Coutinho who provided it.

Serbia v Brazil: Group E - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

It was Coutinho who rocketed in a free kick in the opener against Switzerland, the only moment of brilliance for Brazil in a match they tied 1-1.

Against Costa Rica, the game was tied 0-0 after 90 minutes. In the first minute of added time it was Coutinho again, this time breaking through into the box to finish off a loose ball and give Brazil the lead. Neymar would tap in a second six minutes later, once Costa Rica had thrown everyone forward, but it was Coutinho who broke the deadlock.

And against Serbia, Coutinho was the one who played in an inch-perfect pass to Paulinho for the breakthrough goal. Neymar tallied an assist off a corner later, too, but again, it was Coutinho who was involved in the winning goal.

Coutinho is obviously a world class player, but partly what’s so great about him is his versatility. He can play a #10 role or drift out wide. He can play a false 9 or drop back into midfield. If Brazil are springing a counter, he has the speed and finishing ability to stay with Neymar and Gabriel Jesus in a full sprint down the field. If the game gets slowed down, he has the creativity and passing ability to break down a defense.

He can push high and beat a man. He can also fall back into the midfield, collect, and hit a 30-yarder within an inch, as he did for Paulinho against Serbia.

Whether Brazil is possessing or looking to break on a counter-attack, he can work for you.

This isn’t to say Coutinho is better than Neymar. I don’t think he is. It’s just to say that he’s been the difference maker so far.

And a player like Coutinho is what separates Brazil from some of the other big teams in this tournament. When Messi struggles to get involved, Argentina don’t have a lot of other ideas. Portugal have been great because Cristiano Ronaldo is playing out of his mind, but if he slows down ... who do they go to?

Brazil have a security blanket in Coutinho.

And, well, they have one in Gabriel Jesus too, if he gets going. And Firmino. And Douglas Costa. Man, Brazil are freaking good, aren’t they?