November 11, 2016

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho had become used to watching Brazil either on TV or from the bench. But after new coach Tite took over the national team in September, Coutinho has secured a key supporting role in leading Brazil to the top of its World Cup group in South American qualifiers. In the 3-0 victory over Argentina on Thursday, Coutinho had his best performance wearing yellow so far.

Brazil's No. 11 opened scoring with a superb strike from the edge of the box, and then floated behind Argentina's defensive midfielders to create space for Barcelona star Neymar to score his 50th goal for the home team. For the first time in a Brazil match, the 53,000 fans at the Mineirao stadium chanted Coutinho's name as he was substituted by Douglas Costa.

Coutinho's natural partnership with Neymar comes from playing together in youth divisions. They are so close that, after the game, both posted on Instagram the same picture of themselves celebrating a goal. ''Since a long time ago,'' Neymar's post read, with Coutinho saying much the same thing.

Other players see the growing importance of their relationship.

''They understand each other so much that they make it all simpler for the other players,'' said Brazil midfielder Renato Augusto.

Brazil has won all five matches since Coutinho became a vital member of the side under Tite, with the bonus of Neymar's teamwork also improving. During training sessions in Belo Horizonte this week, Coutinho and Neymar - both 24 - were almost always together, and often with 19-year-old striker Gabriel Jesus, who will soon move to Manchester City.

''It is so easy to play with them,'' Coutinho said. ''And it is great because our relationship works on and off the pitch. That has given us a lot of confidence.''

Coach Tite also gets credit from the Liverpool midfielder.

''He thinks every player is important, even those that are not playing,'' Coutinho said. ''That has made a big difference.''

Brazil leads the South American qualifiers with 24 points from 11 matches. The top four teams qualify automatically for the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

Next Tuesday Brazil visits eighth-placed Peru.

Despite the convincing victory over Argentina - at the same place where Brazil was humiliated by Germany 7-1 in the 2014 World Cup semifinals - Coutinho believes there is still a lot to do before Russia. For now, he wants to enjoy being a supporting actor.

''Just to be here brings me a lot of pride, just to be in a squad like this with all these fantastic players,'' Coutinho said. ''Playing against Argentina was a big dream come true, every Brazilian child dreams to be in one of those games.''

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