Football Features

Neymar is back on course to claim Lionel Messi’s seat

By Muhammad Butt

Neymar world's best player analysis

Published: 16:52, 13 August 2020

Neymar has always been a player with a certain sense of destiny about him.

In March 2017 at the Camp Nou, there were 89 minutes gone and Barcelona were staring Champions League elimination in the face. They were trailing PSG, but Neymar stepped up. He scored a stunning free-kick, bagged a penalty two minutes later, and then with 95′ on the clock he arced a beautiful ball over the top of the defence for Sergi Roberto to score and complete an absurd, historic comeback.

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That night Neymar looked destined for the very top of the game. He played alongside Leo Messi but for the first time in a very big game had been the Argentine’s equal (perhaps even superior). Messi was playing deeper and ceding playmaking in the final third to Neymar. He was actively passing his crown to the Brazilian.

But that wasn’t enough. Neymar wanted control over everything the way Messi did. And so Neymar left Barcelona that summer to join PSG. It was a bold step, a gamble, and one that didn’t pay off instantly. For three years, the comeback against PSG remained the high water-mark of Neymar’s Champions League performances. The moment where he was closest to the throne.

Not that Neymar was bad for PSG. In fact, quite the opposite, as since 2016/17 no one has more assists (16) and dribbles completed (168) in the Champions League than the Brazilian. But performing in the group stages when you’ve already won the thing (in 2015) and performed a miracle (in 2017) just doesn’t cut it. Moreover, PSG had never had an issue navigating the group stages before Neymar. Nor did they have an issue winning Ligue 1, the Coupe de France or the Coupe de la Ligue.

In order to move the needle, Neymar would have to make noise in the Champions League. And for the longest time he never did that, not a significant or new way. Injuries didn’t help as he missed vast swathes of the back halves of 2017/18 and 2018/19 and could only watch on as PSG found new and ever-more amusing ways to get eliminated from Europe.

But in 2019/20, Neymar was fit. And they found their way past Borussia Dortmund with the Brazilian scoring twice over two legs. Nothing too spectacular, but they were through. Could he produce when his side were really up against it, as he had done for Barcelona back in 2017? Could he perform miracles as the main man?

In August 2020 at the Estadio da Luz, there were 89 minutes gone and PSG were staring Champions League elimination in the face. They were trailing Atalanta, but Neymar stepped up. First a lovely bit of control and a simple pass allowed Marquinhos to force an own goal, then with 93 minutes played his scorching run down the left eventually led to him playing an outrageous pass behind the Atalanta defence, opening things up for Kylian Mbappé to square it and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to win it.

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If he had just produced those two game-winning moments, it would have been enough. To lift a club as mentally scarred as PSG are forward into Champions League prosperity is a phenomenal achievement. But Neymar did so much more on the night. He was absolutely unplayable, to the extent that his only weakness was his own spotty finishing.

Twice Neymar missed glorious chances to score, sure, but far more than that the Brazilian would pick the ball up deep and drive through three, four, five Atalanta players like they weren’t even there. PSG were asking him to carry them and he was doing just that, receiving no help from any of his offensive team-mates until Kylian Mbappé entered the fray on the hour mark.

And even with Mbappé on the field, Neymar remained the catalyst for the Parisians. He was the focal point of both his own side’s passes and also the oppositions defensive efforts. Yet despite all this attention, Neymar continued to excel. He finished the night with 113 touches, 15/23 take-ons completed, nine fouls won, four chances created, six shots, one ‘pre-assist’ and an actual assist. A bafflingly impressive stat-line but even that cannot come close to the sensation you got from watching him. It was poetry in motion, true superhero stuff.

Back in 2017, Neymar was on the fast-track to becoming the best player in the world. A true prince awaiting his coronation. Messi wasn’t in decline (and still isn’t), but Neymar’s ascension was so rapid that it seemed only a matter of time before he took the throne. Since Neymar left Catalunya, however, he has stalled. Others have overtaken him, even if the Brazilian’s quality hasn’t really dipped at all, because a lack of forward momentum, when it’s all you’ve had your entire career, does end up looking like going backwards.

Not anymore, though. After his Champions League heroics lifted PSG to their first semi-final since 1995, Neymar is back on track to become the best player in the world. Yes, he’s still playing in Ligue 1 but he’s shown that at long last he can get to grips with the only games that truly matter to PSG: the knockout stages of the Champions League. He has shown he can carry “his” own side, being their everything when they need him most. He can play the decisive passes and the killer dribbles. He can be the difference.

Neymar has always been a player with a certain sense of destiny about him. And for a while, it looked like that would be a destiny unfulfilled. A Forever Prince. Not anymore. Forget all the other pretenders, as incredible as they might be. A healthy Neymar playing the way he did against Atalanta is the only player who could dream about surpassing Leo Messi to be football’s monarch.

Now he stands on the precipice, and should he be able to lead PSG to Champions League glory (or go down swinging, at least) and then bring that same fire again next season, if he can make exceptional excellence so expected that people will start being surprised when he has a bad game, then we can finally start to talk about Neymar like we used to. A genius destined to be the world’s best player. Not just a prince, but the Future King of football.