Despite having already won the competition with Barcelona in 2015, all eyes will be on Neymar this Sunday to see whether the Brazilian can steer Paris Saint-Germain to Champions League glory for the first time ever.
Neymar joined PSG in 2017 with a view to helping them conquer Europe, a mission they have so far failed to accomplish. And so two last-16 exits in two years, both of which coincided with Neymar suffering a broken metatarsal, excused the Brazilian from conversations as to the world’s next-best player beyond Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. However, 2019/20 could see Neymar course-correct.
Normal service in the Champions League was disrupted even before the semi-finals, where there were no English or Spanish sides among the final four for the first time since 1996. But more significantly the stage was also cleared of the major players who usually hog the limelight.
For the first time since 2004/05, neither Messi nor Ronaldo’s current teams were present in the Champions League semi-finals. They are 33 and 35 respectively, so this could become an increasingly regular occurrence. A void will grow as each drifts toward retirement, a void Messi always expected Neymar, who turned 28 in February, would fill.
“I think that with his quality and fitness, Neymar will become the best in the world,” Messi said in 2014. Right now, we are days from a huge chance for Neymar to take a major step toward realising his former teammate’s prediction.
Should PSG win this Sunday, he will join 24 players to have lifted the trophy with two different clubs. It is not the most exclusive of lists, but it is one of the most glamorous: Ronaldo, Thiago Motta, Xabi Alonso, Clarence Seedorf and Marcel Desailly, to name just a few.
Neymar is not here to merely take part, though. He already has experience scoring in a Champions League final, having rounded off the scoring deep into injury time as Barcelona beat Juventus 3-1 in 2015. Five years later, this presents Neymar with a chance to become just the third player to score in a Champions League final for two different clubs alongside Mario Mandzukic and Ronaldo, who once said of the Brazilian: “I like Neymar a lot. He is a bit like me. He had some difficulties in getting used to his new environment at first, but I knew that he was going to succeed […] He has everything he needs to be as good as [Messi].”
Champions League final odds from William Hill:
- Neymar to score first (90 mins): 6/1, enhanced from 5/1
- Neymar to score two or more: 15/2
- Neymar to assist: 5/2
But perhaps Neymar’s contribution will more likely be the pass before the goal. Some feel he is too individualist, but in the Champions League he has certainly done more than his fair share in terms of setting up teammates.
Since the start of the 2016/17 season, the Brazilian has recorded 17 assists in the Champions League. This is more than any other player in the competition, and Neymar is seventh overall (with 24) on the all-time list for assists since data started being collected in 2003/04. Currently 14 behind leader Ronaldo and nine behind Messi, though he can close that gap this weekend.
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In the Champions League there is one clear, undisputed, take-on king and that is Messi. The Argentinian has successfully beaten an opponent 57 times during his 2019/20 campaign, leaving him 18 clear of closest rival Neymar.
It is extremely unlikely Messi’s total will be overtaken with just one game remaining. But if anyone were to do just that, it’s Neymar. He currently holds the record for most take-ons completed in a single Champions League game since the start of the 2016/17, which he set by performing 16 in the quarter-final win over Atalanta this season. In second place on that particular list is Neymar with 15 against Juventus in 2017, two clear of Neymar against Napoli and Real Madrid in 2018. You get the idea.
A strong performance on Sunday, potentially helping PSG win the Champions League, will go some way to cementing Neymar’s place as the number one dribbler in the competition.
A season-by-season guide to PSG’s Champions League shortcomings so far:
- 2012/13: QF (eliminated by Barcelona)
- 2013:14: QF (eliminated by Chelsea)
- 2014/15: QF (eliminated by Barcelona)
- 2015/16: QF (eliminated by Man City)
- 2016/17: R16 (eliminated by Barcelona)
- 2017/18: R16 (eliminated by Real Madrid)
- 2018/19: R16 (eliminated by Manchester United)
- 2019/20: TBD (PSG 6/4 to win the 2019/20 Champions League outright with William Hill | 18+ only, Be Gamble Aware)
For all their domestic dominance in recent years, this will be PSG’s first-ever Champions League final, making them the 41st different club to reach the showcase event. Unfortunately for Thomas Tuchel’s men, the results haven’t been on the side of the first-timers in recent years.
There are no winners among the last six teams to take part in their first Champions League final, a list comprising Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Arsenal, Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and Valencia. But if Neymar can inspire his teammates, the Brazilian – alongside PSG – will have overturned this historic trend, while also giving him two wins from two final appearances.
And if they can prove to themselves that they can get over the line and become the second French club to win the Champions League, the footballing landscape could start to look very different.