(Reuters) - Brazil’s star man at this World Cup was supposed to be Neymar but three games into the tournament it is Philippe Coutinho who is taking the plaudits and the Barcelona player was again prominent in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Serbia.
Coutinho has as many man of the match awards in this tournament as Neymar has different haircuts.
Against Serbia he was Brazil’s creative fulcrum, setting up the first goal with a sublime long ball for Paulinho to touch over the onrushing Serbian goalkeeper.
His defense-splitting passes should have brought Brazil more reward, with Neymar and Gabriel Jesus also benefiting from his creative talent.
Coutinho has perhaps benefited from his good friend Neymar’s love of the limelight.
With all eyes on the world’s most expensive footballer, the Barcelona player can operate under the radar and in Russia he has had the space to do what he does best, driving forward, threading perfect passes and cutting in to unleash fierce shots.
Unlike Neymar, whose obsession with fame has brought him both cheers and jeers in equal measure, the naturally diffident Coutinho is strikingly low profile.
He is one of the first names on coach Tite’s team sheet – and voted man of the match against Switzerland and Costa Rica - but he squirmed in his seat when asked if he aspired to being the best player in the world.
“I never like to speak about myself, it is not something that goes through my head,” he told reporters at Brazil’s base camp last week.
“What I think about is preparing and evolving and helping Brazil becoming world champions. Being the best in the world? I leave that for other people (to decide).”
Coutinho’s rich vein of form has been especially welcome in a team whose top players have struggled to produce the brilliance that helped them win 17 of their 21 games before arriving in Russia.
Willian, Gabriel Jesus and Neymar himself are all yet to hit top gear and Brazil must surely know they need more from their big names if they are to add a sixth star to their famous yellow jersey.
For now, though, they can rely on Coutinho as they head into a last-16 clash with Mexico.
Reporting by Andrew Downie, editing by Ed Osmond