RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Philippe Coutinho arrived in Brazil for the Copa America expecting to play second fiddle to Neymar. But an injury and two goals have lifted him into a leading role.
When Brazil takes on Venezuela on Tuesday in Salvador, the midfielder will be heir to the injured Neymar in the hearts of local fans.
Coutinho had a disappointing season with Barcelona, but his two-goal performance in the 3-0 opening win over Bolivia on Friday showed he is still capable of organizing a team’s offense, scoring goals and keeping the pace once the match is settled.
After struggling on the left flank, he moved to a more central position where he was responsible for Brazil’s flow and style.
“I am happy to play in that position in the center,” Coutinho said after the opener. “It is a position that I like more. I hope that I can correspond in the best way possible.”
While Brazil will qualify for the quarterfinals by beating Venezuela, it faces pressure to perform better than it did against Bolivia.
The Brazilians heard boos after an unimpressive first half in Sao Paulo, before Coutinho scored from the penalty spot and with a header after the break.
Without Neymar, who injured his right ankle days before the opening game, Coutinho had more opportunities to shoot from long distance. He also played closer to strikers Richarlison and Roberto Firmino, and captain Dani Alves believes Coutinho can definitely become the team’s key player in the tournament.
“All he needed was some self-confidence to have this role. He knows that he has the confidence of the team to be our leading figure,” Alves said.
Venezuela, which has never qualified for a World Cup, has won just one of 24 matches against Brazil.
Coach Rafael Dudamel said he doesn’t believe parking the bus will work, but feels his defense will be a key to the match.
“To play against Brazil as if we were equals is silliness,” Dudamel said. “We have to play with respect, admiration, self-assurance and without any sort of complex.”
The crowd in Salvador could give Brazil an extra boost after the tepid welcome in Sao Paulo.
The noise from the 47,000 fans at the Morumbi Stadium was so low that players could hear coach instructions. More than 20,000 seats were empty despite tournament officials claiming that the match was sold out.
“In Bahia the energy is different,” Brazil’s Alves said. “People miss the national team there… I am sure it will be more cheerful.”
Organizers once again said Brazil’s match is sold out.
Brazil leads Group A with three points. Peru and Venezuela have one after a scoreless draw on Saturday. Bolivia has zero.
AP writer Eric Nunez contributed to this report from Salvador.
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