PSG are into the Champions League semi-finals for the second consecutive year, but this time something feels different. And that something is Neymar.
After outgunning the burgeoning supernova that was Erling Haaland’s first games with Dortmund, last year PSG really kind of scraped their way into the final four with two stoppage-time goals from unlikely scorers against Atalanta. Then they outlasted the hitherto energetic RB Leipzig in the semis to reach the final, where they then fell short in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
This year they beat Barcelona 5-2 on aggregate but that match had a similar air to last year in that they were superior but there were also gaping holes in their team that a sharper Barcelona could have exploited. They won 1-4 in the Camp Nou, sure, but they could just have easily lost 1-5 in the Parc des Princes were it not for some wayward finishing from Ousmane Dembélé and Leo Messi. Kylian Mbappé’s individual goalscoring genius basically saved the day and handed them that first-leg win which they rode to victory, but they were definitely sloppy.
But the thing is, Neymar didn’t play that tie. He was out injured.
He wasn’t injured against Bayern, though.
2020/21 Champions League winner odds (via William Hill):
- Man City: 13/10
- PSG: 16/5
- Real Madrid: 7/2
- Chelsea: 4/1
For the world’s most expensive player, Neymar has been a curiously overlooked talent during his time in Paris. This likely owes a lot to those injuries. He’s missed roughly 50% of PSG’s games in that time, including multiple Champions League eliminations in the knockout rounds.
But it also speaks to a greater sensation of overlooking Neymar’s genius because he is seen by some to embody everything “wrong” (i.e. new) in football. He is image conscious to the extreme, is happy to advertise pretty much anything, has designs on entering the acting world (having cameo’d in xXx: The Return of Xander Cage) and of course he absolutely positively loves a bit of diving and playacting.
All of those things are symbolic of modern football but rub a lot of fans up the wrong way, so even when he was in Barcelona he rarely got the credit he deserved as the second-best player in the world (which he has been since late 2015, give or take). Neymar and his management thought moving to Paris and getting “his own team” would remedy this, but still he goes unappreciated.
Well, maybe not anymore. Not after what he just did to Bayern.
The European Champions were everyone’s favourite to retain their crown, owing to them just looking ridiculous again, steamrollering everything in their way after hearing that Champions League anthem (that their b-team managed to draw with La Liga leaders Atlético Madrid in Madrid spoke volumes to their form and confidence in Europe).
But then they encountered Neymar. Kylian Mbappé, Angel Di Maria and a whole host of other PSG players, too. Colin Dagba bottling up Kingsley Coman for two legs (the man who scored the winning goal between the two sides in last year’s final) was an incredibly important defensive display; Idrissa Gueye struggled against Barcelona but was able to essentially to shut Bayern down on Tuesday and Di Maria was at his most Di Maria, the world’s best support forward.
And then there’s Mbappé. Goodness gracious, Mbappé. Two goals in the first leg, a whole host of great stuff in the second. He’s got six Champions League goals in the knockout rounds now and has been so good many were declaring him the present and the future of top-level football, the heir to Leo Messi’s throne.
Neymar doesn’t exactly agree with this. “There’s no comparison,” the Brazilian told reporters this week. “They have two very different styles of play. Messi is the best player I’ve seen, and Kylian is on his way to becoming one of the best.”
But what Neymar didn’t say, because despite his reputation he really isn’t all that haughty, is that Mbappé cannot be next in line to supplant Messi, because that is a spot currently occupied by Neymar.
And don’t Bayern know it. What Neymar did to the champions of Europe over two legs was nothing short of spectacular. A delirious dance of delightfully deft and daring dalliances between ball and man that were scarcely believable. Every time he touched the ball it was showtime. You just knew something impressive was going to happen.
His two assists in the first leg were unbelievably good, the first a perfectly weighted pass after a penetrative run that punctured the heart of the Bayern defence, while his second was the kind of ridiculum that only Neymar could pull off. A first-time weak-foot diagonal cross starting with his back to goal, bending his leg around the ball and arcing it up and over the advancing Bayern defence perfectly into the stride of Marquinhos, who could have squared to Mbappé for a tap-in but did Neymar’s stats output a favour and finished it himself.
In the second leg Neymar was equally mesmeric. He completed six take-ons (the highest on the night) and no Bayern player could touch him. He struck the bar, he struck the post, and he pulled two world-class saves out of Manuel Neuer. It’s rare that we witness a player so toy with the reigning European Champions as Neymar did with Bayern, but it was a sight to see.
Mauricio Pochettino’s gameplan to sit back should have seen them get steamrolled by Bayern, but Neymar’s excellence prevented that. Every time pressure would mount on PSG, Neymar would appear and carry the ball 20-30 yards, then have a shot or win a foul (he won a game-high seven) and the pressure would be off PSG momentarily.
It was a performance of great poise and maturity, where he made the correct decision every time he got the ball. Had Mbappé been as accurate in his actions, PSG probably could have walked away with a win as the Frenchman blew several counter-attacks late on. Not that he was bad. All players make bad decisions and it just shows the ridiculous level Neymar was at that he made none.
PSG will now enter the semi-finals with serious momentum behind them. Mbappé is great, yes, but with Neymar playing the way he is currently, what force could stop the Parisians? The Brazilian is far and away the best player left in the tournament and while individual genius doesn’t always lead to team success, would you want to bet against Neymar and PSG right now?
NOS QUEDAMOS CON LAS GANAS 😭
Neymar no dio vueltas y admitió que su intención es seguir en PSG 💣
🗣 "Mi renovación ya no es más un asunto, estoy más feliz que antes, me siento cómodo en PSG", le dijo a @TNTSportsBR
¿Adiós Barcelona? pic.twitter.com/hhS6IHrtJx
— TNT Sports Argentina (@TNTSportsAR) April 14, 2021
Coming up to his last contracted year in Paris, the talk of him leaving has now, in the wake of the Bayern win, been replaced by talk of a contract renewal. Of a happy, contended player who is comfortable where he is.
People wanna act like they forgot about Ney, but he’s here to remind them of his genius and make sure that they never, ever forget him again. First in line to Messi’s throne, he’s a man ready to make the footballing world his own.