Firmino steps forward in win over City; will he be front and centre for Brazil?
The wonderful goal and fine all-round display of Roberto Firmino for Liverpool on Sunday may have consequences beyond ending Manchester City's unbeaten run in the Premier League. It may also secure Firmino's place in Brazil's World Cup squad.
Centre-forward has been something of a problem position for Brazil in recent times, as those who recall the displays of Fred in the last World Cup will testify. Some 18 months ago, when he took over as national team coach, Tite took a gamble on a teenager called Gabriel Jesus, who hit the ground running so fast that he appears to have solved the problem.
But he, of course, is injured at the moment. What if injury should strike again in the World Cup? Or if he is unable to regain form, confidence and full fitness in recovery from his current knee problem? Who is his reserve?
That position has belonged to Roberto Firmino. But a considerable section of the Brazilian press and public have yet to be won over by the Liverpool striker. This is largely because he has no real constituency at home. He did not play for a major Brazilian club before heading for Germany, where he made his name with Hoffenheim. This inevitably diminishes the status of a player in the eyes of his home public; there are no strong memories of match-winning performances to call upon, no connection between the player and the fans of an important club, or with journalists who charted his rise firsthand.
Some of Firmino's international performances have not helped his cause. He last started a competitive game in a World Cup qualifier away to Colombia last September. He was substituted after an unimpressive hour, with Tite confessing he had expected more. And even when he does play well, his virtues can sometimes go unnoticed. The previous game he started was at home to Paraguay. He played a crucial role in the deadlock-breaking first goal, but not with an extravagant flick or a devilish dribble. Instead, with typically intelligent movement he dragged the defence out wide, creating the gap for his then-Liverpool teammate Philippe Coutinho to slot home.
It is precisely the absence of Coutinho that makes the performance of Firmino against Manchester City stand out. In a memorable game in which Liverpool got their tactics spot on -- pressing at the right time to separate Fernandinho from Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan, breaking City's circuit of passing early -- Firmino sent the message that he is a top player in his own right, with the talent and mobility to trouble good defences.
Some will continue to argue that he is more of a support striker than a genuine centre-forward, and that Brazil would be better served by having the option of a target man on the bench. Imagine, they say, the scenario where in the World Cup Brazil need a goal with 20 minutes to go. With a packed opposing defence lying deep, the absence of space might be countered by the introduction of a big centre-forward with physical presence; at least it would be change.
Tite has not closed the door on this type of player, but has made an interesting choice. In what comes across as an insult to Brazil's target-man centre-forwards, his first option for the position is Diego Souza: a 32-year-old who has played his entire club career in midfield.
This month, Diego Souza has swapped Sport of Recife for Sao Paulo -- a big club in the traditional heartland of Brazilian football. Sao Paulo have just sold their Argentine centre-forward Lucas Pratto to River Plate. It could well be, then, that Diego Souza will replace him. Playing regularly at centre-forward for a club like Sao Paulo would surely be motivated, at least in part, by the boost it would give to his World Cup chances if he proves a success.
Brazil are unlikely to take three centre-forwards to Russia. So assuming the fitness of Gabriel Jesus, the battle is now joined by two very different players in two very different championships: Diego Souza of Sao Paulo and Roberto Firmino of Liverpool.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.