Brazil, already anxious and nervous after drawing their opening game against Switzerland, were given an almighty scare yesterday when Neymar limped off the training field with an ankle injury.
The striker, only recently back from a broken foot suffered playing for Paris St Germain last February, looked almost in tears as he was forced to cut short a session at Brazil’s Sochi base after only 20 minutes.
Reports from inside the Brazil camp later confirmed he had injured his right ankle (the same leg but not the same injury he suffered with PSG), having also felt it during the
1-1 draw against the Swiss.
He was immediately taken for physiotherapy and although the initial reports are that it is not serious — and he may even be able to train today — there was an air of tension when Philippe Coutinho held a press conference ahead of Friday’s crucial Group E game against Costa Rica. And there is certainly a suspicion the Brazilians are under-playing what may turn out to be a difficult injury.
“Today was a day for recovering and it happened almost at the end of our session. I think he felt something but that’s quite normal. I hope he is OK.”
It is a complicated situation for Coutinho because the Barcelona man may well be the player coach Tite turns to play the Neymar role should the world’s most expensive player be unavailable for selection on Friday. He admits his teammate has now become a major target for opposition defenders and midfielders.
“Everybody goes after Neymar — when he’s playing he gets a lot of fouls, people come strong at him,” he said.
The idea of facing Costa Rica or indeed Serbia in their final group game is pretty unbearable for a Brazil side that has worked so hard to overcome the psychological scars of losing 7-1 to Germany in a World Cup semi-final on home soil four years ago. That defeat came after Neymar was badly injured in the tournament and there’s little doubt that the two things are linked in the minds of many of the Brazil squad.
“Neymar is one of the best payers in the world, playing with him is definitely very important for our team. This is what I can tell you,” Coutinho said when asked what it would be like if Neymar was unable to play.
“When he plays for us it’s a huge help. He’s a brave man who always faces our opponents and is always trying to create things.”
Deciding whether to risk Neymar against the tough-tackling Costa Ricans is now a risk for Brazilian coach Tite. Does he leave the player out and risk elimination if Brazil fail to win? Or does he play him and risk aggravating an injury that could put Neymar out of future knockout ties?
The silver lining for Coutinho, perhaps, is that he may be handed a more central role if Neymar is not fit. He scored a wonderful goal from long distance against Switzerland when playing mainly on the left but baulks at the idea that this could be his chance to join the likes of Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi as one of the greatest in the world. “Well, I’ve always said I don’t like to take about myself,” he insisted.
“It’s not something in my mind and other people can talk about that. What’s in my mind is evolving and getting better. I want to help Brazil reach its objective which is becoming champions.
“And as for being the main striker in our team, we all have different characteristics. Different responsibility. But we all know what we need to do and if we do what we have to, then the team will play well.”
Interestingly, despite constant talk of how united the current Brazil squad are and how well they get along, Coutinho also had to deal with a difficult question about a column written by Brazil legend Zico — who claimed that Coutinho often disappeared in games and that led to resentment from his teammate Neymar.
When asked if he was comfortable with his position in the team, the midfielder said: “Yes, I am. I’ve played there many times during my time at Liverpool.
“As for disappearing, I always do my best but sometimes things don’t go the way as you want them to. What I have to do is help my team — to play the way Tite ask me to, to do what I do well.”
It will be interesting to see how Brazil react on Friday. Coutinho talked constantly about how the team had to “stay calm” against Costa Rica, almost as if repeating a mantra. He often referred to “anxiety” and to the team’s tendency to rush attacks rather than “play with the ball” and “move it side to side”.
For all their wonderful results and performances in the build-up to this tournament, you sense there is still a vulnerability to the World Cup favourites.
“We have a lot of people who think that just because we are Brazil we are going to have an easy victory and score plenty,” said Coutinho.
“But the message from the first game is that teams are well prepared in this World Cup. We have to keep cool.”
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