Will Philippe Coutinho fill the void left by Andrés Iniesta at FC Barcelona?
No one can fully replace Andrés Iniesta at FC Barcelona, both on the pitch and in the dressing room. After 22 years of distinguished service at the club's midfield most of which was acting as a part of the spectacular trident that dominated both La Liga and European football, the World Cup winner had become an adopted son to the Cules.
But everyone has to move on at some point.
Like one of his longtime partners in midfield for both club and country, Xavi Hernandez, Iniesta had to leave too. He now plies his trade in a supposed retirement league outside of Europe. He joined the Japanese side, Vissel Kobe, as he left Barcelona and retired from international duty with the Spanish national team this summer. That leaves Lionel Messi as the last man standing at the club out of the once deadly trio.
But Barcelona are not a club that leaves gaps in the team. The club's midfield still remains amongst the best in Europe. That's because capable replacements have been brought in. One such came last January, as a record signing from Liverpool, who currently remains the third most expensive signing in world football: Philippe Coutinho.
Playing under the legend’s shadow in his first season at the club, it is understandable that the Brazilian was underused. But Iniesta's exit seems to have given the 26-year-old wings to fly. Now he can play in his preferred position in midfield.
Yes, he may not replace the club's icon in the fans’ hearts, but he can ensure results on the pitch are so good he is not missed. His starring role alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in the club's pummeling of newly promoted Huesca 8-2 suggests exactly that.
In a club where starman Messi tends to dictate how the team plays and results, the former Inter Milan and Liverpool man is not content to take a back seat. Coutinho showed in the match he could be just as influential. His passing game and defence-splitting balls give the Blaugrana a new dimension.
After conceding a third-minute goal in front of the home fans, it appeared the Blaugranes were in for a long day at the Camp Nou. But Ernesto Valverde's men hit back in stunning fashion.
The Argentine magician and his Uruguayan counterpart did get a brace each in the 8-2 rout, but Coutinho's role in the result cannot be minimised. Despite not getting on the scoresheet himself, he played the role of the feeder to the star men. His biggest strength is in creating chances for the players around him.
A good example was his through-pass that split the opponent's defence and left the goalkeeper at Messi’s mercy. The Barcelona #10 promptly slotted home for his second of the night and Barca's sixth.
Coutinho comes loaded with several weapons. He is technically gifted, adept at passing the ball and offers thrills that can get the fans off their seats, on a good day. His curling strikes have become trademarks. With many years still ahead for him, he will most likely dwarf Iniesta's goal count of 57 in 669 appearances.
Barcelona paid Liverpool a £5million bonus only last weekend for his 25th appearance in the club's colours. Another instalment is due early next year. If the player continues at this rate, his huge transfer fee may as well be considered a bargain.
More importantly, helping the club dominate La Liga and Europe again will firmly establish a new era at the club and help the fans get over the absence of two of Spain's and Barcelona's most important players ever.