One Brazilian out, another Brazilian in?
Barcelona’s dogged pursuit of Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho could easily be perceived as an attempt by the Catalan club to find a quick replacement for departed superstar Neymar.
In fact, however, Coutinho could more accurately be regarded as the intended long-term heir for an arguably even more important player: Andres Iniesta.
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Club captain Iniesta has, of course, been a fundamental part of Barca’s success over the last decade, initially shining as one of the Holy Trinity of ball players – alongside Xavi and Lionel Messi – who mesmerised the world under the management of Pep Guardiola.
Although his influence has not been quite so strong in recent years since the team’s emphasis switched to the forward play of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, Iniesta has still been vitally important in providing a link between midfield and attack, with his presence being sorely missed whenever he is sidelined.
And sadly, the sight of Iniesta being sidelined has become – and will continue to become – increasingly common as the effects of ageing take their inevitable toll.
Iniesta started just 13 league games last season, with then-manager Luis Enrique preferring to save his energies for big games and the European stage, and with the playmaker now 33 years old it’s highly unlikely that trend will be reversed under new boss Ernesto Valverde.
Quite simply, Barca need to replace Iniesta in a way they have never succeeded in replacing Xavi.
Four or five years ago, the succession plan seemed clear: rising star Thiago Alcantara and re-signed local boy Cesc Fabregas were in place to become ‘the new Xavi and Iniesta’, and Barca’s retention of their possession-based game seemed assured.
But then Thiago – feeling under-appreciated and under-used – fled to Bayern Munich, and Fabregas – whose second spell at his hometown club strangely fizzled out – was allowed to return to the Premier League with Chelsea.
And ever since, Barca have desperately struggled to replenish their midfield stocks.
Plenty of players have been given opportunities, but only Ivan Rakitic has looked up to the mark with others such as Sergi Roberto, Andre Gomes, Arda Turan, Denis Suarez and Rafinha all struggling to exert themselves.
The first-choice trio of Iniesta, Rakitic and Sergio Busquets is still more than a match for anyone but behind them the options do not look good, and with Iniesta a fading force there is a clear need for top-quality reinforcements.
Barca’s first choice was Marco Verratti, but Paris Saint-Germain claimed the first of their victories over the Camp Nou club this summer by successfully rejecting all advances for the Italian ace.
So now sights have been set on Coutinho, who is clearly keen to move to Spain and, in all likelihood, will eventually succeed in forcing his departure from Liverpool.
Whether or not Coutinho is the right player to replace Iniesta is debateable, and opinion is certainly divided among fans.
The Liverpool star possesses the right technical qualities, but there are question marks over his ability to control the tempo of a game and, in particular, his defensive attributes.
Coutinho’s best position has always looked to be the ‘number ten’ position, probing and penetrating around the edge of the opposition penalty area.
But Barca already have a number ten who fills that role rather well, and if Coutinho does ever arrive at Camp Nou he would have to make sure he didn’t, literally, get in Messi’s way by occupying the spaces in which the Argentine operates.
His task, rather than replacing Neymar or replicating Messi, would be to perform his best impersonation of Iniesta. And that is no simple task.