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Spanish FA was right to fire Lopetegui


How Panama made World Cup dream a reality

 By Tim Vickery

Philippe Coutinho's fate once again depends on what Neymar does

On Sunday, Gerard Pique put out on social media a photo of himself and Neymar together with the comment "staying" in Spanish. If this really is -- for this window anyway -- the end of Neymar's "Will he or won't he go to PSG?" saga, does that mean that Liverpool can breathe more easily?

Barcelona, of course, have been expressing an interest in Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho. Some have interpreted this as the search by the Catalan giants for a long-term Andres Iniesta replacement. Perhaps. Coutinho, though, is relatively untried in a central-midfield position. His favoured role has usually been cutting in from wide on the left, the very position currently filled by Neymar.

Se queda.

A post shared by Gerard Piqué (@3gerardpique) on

For a while this was a problem for Coutinho's international ambitions. He could only get into the starting lineup when Neymar was missing. Over the past year, though, Brazil coach Tite has found a place for Coutinho on the other flank. He floats across from the right, sowing confusion in the opposing defence. This might be another possibility for Barcelona -- a line of Coutinho, Lionel Messi and Neymar behind Luis Suarez, though it would run the risk of leaving the team top-heavy.

The most sober analysis of Barcelona's interest in Coutinho, then, is that he is a hedge in the event that Neymar makes the move to Paris.

Interestingly, Coutinho was also part of an earlier event that ended up having a significant impact on Neymar's career in European club football.

The pair formed Brazil's attack in the 2009 Under-17 World Cup in Nigeria. Incredibly, Brazil were one of eight nations eliminated in the group phase -- the big problem was a lack of goals. They opened up with a 3-2 win over Japan -- in which the opposing goalkeeper made an extraordinary blunder in second-half stoppage time. Then came 1-0 defeats to Switzerland and Mexico. Neymar, already shining with Santos in Brazil's first division, made little impact and was substituted.

The experience left a scar -- and was surely one of the explanations for the fact that the player moved to Europe in only 2013. He could have gone much earlier. But the decision was made to take things slowly, step by step.

Another influence on this strategy was the relative failure of Robinho in top-class European football. The idol of the young Neymar, Robinho was looked upon as a phenomenon in Brazil -- one former international predicted that he would go on to be greater than anyone who ever played the game with the exception of Pele. So when Robinho moved to Real Madrid, it was taken for granted that before too long he would cruise to the FIFA World Player of the Year award.

Brazilians have an obsession with this prize, the fruit of the fact that five Brazilians won it on eight separate occasions between 1994 and 2007. Robinho was seen as next on the conveyor belt, but his career has never fully recovered from the discovery that Real Madrid were prepared to use him as a makeweight to get their hands on Cristiano Ronaldo.

Philippe Coutinho's effect on Neymar's European football career goes back to their Under-17 days.

Neymar, then, set off for Europe in the knowledge that there was a high degree of difficulty in the task ahead. This is one of the reasons Barcelona was such an ideal club; the presence of Messi would ease the pressure. He could grow calmly and comfortably in Messi's shadow.

The long-term planning always presumed one of three outcomes: Messi would move on; Neymar would replace Messi as the team's go-to player; Neymar would move. Because Neymar could hardly be chosen as the world's best if he was not the outstanding figure in his own team. And so it is surely not a coincidence that the speculation surrounding the move to PSG has blown up soon after Messi agreed a new contract. With Option 1 off the table and Option 2 not likely to happen yet, Option 3 looks more attractive.

It would be understandable if Neymar is living something of an internal conflict on this issue. There are merits in staying: continuing to enjoy himself with Messi, Iniesta and Luis Suarez. There are also merits in leaving: becoming the big star at PSG and, perhaps, arriving a little fresher at next year's World Cup.

Tostao, a 1970 great who is always the wisest voice in Brazilian football, wrote Sunday that he "will not be surprised if Neymar stays at Barcelona or if he goes to PSG ... Neymar has learned plenty at Barcelona playing with Messi. There is no contradiction between, on the one hand, the joy of playing for such a great team and the admiration and friendship he has with Messi and, on the other the desire to be even more famous and a bigger star than he already is. ... It is impossible to say which option would be better for Neymar. The bad thing would be to dream of one thing and do the other."

If Pique is correct then, for better or worse, the decision has been made -- which means that Barcelona fans can breathe easier, and maybe Liverpool supporters can, as well.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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