There's no doubt what the most eye catching aspect was of Inter's trip to Pinzolo, the little town in a valley in the Alps where La Beneamata have spent the last two weeks. It isn't the bright red new away strip they wore in the friendlies against a Trentino select and Slovenian outfit FC Koper, which has angered some fans so much their faces have turned the same colour. It isn't the return of Rodrigo Palacio's infamous 'rat tail' hairstyle either.
No, it's the performances of a certain frizzy haired, vertically challenged Brazilian munchkin which have been more refreshing to those of a Nerazzurri persuasion than a cold gust of Alpine air, a leap in an Alpine lake, a...well, you get the picture.
Philippe Coutinho collected the ball on the left wing with 70 minutes played at the tiny Stadio Quercia on Sunday night. He knocked it inside, tempting two Koper defenders into thinking they could nick it off him, before suddenly spinning off down the left again, a turn so dramatic it left one of the Slovenians on his hind parts. Upon entering the box he flummoxed another poor defender with a sharp swivel and – whilst falling – whipped a shot across goal into the bottom corner.
The 20-year-old also opened the scoring in the 6-0 rout of the Trentino select last Thursday and back in May, during Inter's slightly bizarre end of season jaunt to Indonesia, the highlight of which was Javier Zanetti's appearance on 'Indonesian Idol', struck a brace in a 4-2 win over the Indonesian national side.
A fairly hefty disclaimer is required at this point. The Indonesian national side, a Trentino select and FC Koper are not Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Drawing sweeping conclusions from pre-season matches is always dangerous. Yet there is cause to believe that, as the Gazzetta dello Sport wrote after that double in the heat of Jakarta: “The tiny Brazilian is another player altogether after his loan spell at Espanyol.”
Watch the five La Liga goals Coutinho scored in his five months with Barcelona's second club last season – and they include a wonderfully cunning low free-kick, a brilliant individual run and finish and a scorching half volley – and the sensation you get isn't 'hold on, he's actually half decent this kid', it’s 'wow, he's a genius!'
So how did we come to have such low expectations of the boy from Rio De Janeiro in the first place? Signed from Vasco Da Gama aged just 16 in 2008, but not formally arriving at Inter until two years later, the problem was that due to his nationality, age and appearance Coutinho was burdened with Alexandre Pato comparisons from day one, and expected to make the same immediate impact that the Duck did at Milan in 2007.
He failed to do so, but did turn in some very promising performances on the left of a 4-2-3-1 against Werder Bremen and Tottenham in the Champions League, only to disappear almost entirely from the first team set up when Leonardo replaced the sacked Rafa Benitez. Likewise last season, he was only just coming on to a game with a goal against Cagliari and an assist against Fiorentina when the decision to loan him to Espanyol was made.
Having made just 18 League appearances in his first two years at San Siro, Coutinho is a victim of the turmoil that has engulfed Inter since the 2010 Treble and Jose Mourinho's exit. But now, with some tranquillity at long last permeating the club and a new team consisting of one or two of the old faces, several new signings and a number of Andrea Stramaccioni's former Primavera pupils taking shape, his time appears to have come.
Playing once again on the left of a 4-2-3-1, which appears to be Strama's tactical blueprint for the season ahead, gives Coutinho the chance to indulge his favourite pastimes, namely running with the ball and making defenders look very silly Indeed with tricks, flicks and step overs. “We knew he was bit special,” says teammate Diego Milito. “The time in Spain has done him good and he'll help us a lot this year.”
“We often forget that he's only 20-years-old,” states Stramaccioni. “He has matured in Spain and I like him a lot.”
The player’s own take on matters is simple. “I feel good and delighted. Thanks Inter.”
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