Football Features

Neymar finally rises to the occasion and guides PSG by Borussia Dortmund in an empty stadium

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:19, 11 March 2020

In a routine night of football, PSG beat 10-man Borussia Dortmund 2-0 to secure a 3-2 win on aggregate in the Champions League round of 16.

The win was truly monumental for the Parisian side as they pulled off a second-leg comeback in front of an empty stadium due to the Coronavirus safety measures. The result takes PSG into the quarter-finals for the first time since 2015/16 and sets them up to truly make an assault at the Champions League. It was a huge result and it came courtesy of one man: Neymar.

PSG signed Neymar from Barcelona for a world record £200m back in the summer of 2017. It was an earth-shattering signing that completely warped the transfer market and put a massive spotlight onto the Brazilian who justified the move by talk of wanting to make a side of his own, to be the main man and lift PSG up to European relevance.

Well, for two years he was a massive failure. PSG have walked through the group stages in each season but in the knockout rounds they have fallen, and largely because of Neymar’s absence. The Brazilian played exceptionally well in his first knockout match for PSG in the Santiago Bernabeu but a foot injury ruled him out of the return leg.

The following season again his foot exploded and he was left on the sidelines watching as PSG threw away a first-leg lead against Manchester United. No matter how well Neymar played in general, and he truly was spectacular almost every time he took the field for PSG, the move was looking like an absolute disaster because he couldn’t move the needle. PSG were no better off with him than without.

All that is different now.

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In the first leg he was mostly bottled up by PSG’s cautious tactics and couldn’t really do much; yet he was still on the spot to tap home the crucial away goal that meant the Parisians were still in the hunt even though they lost. Still, though: defeat; a familiar feeling for Neymar as a PSG player.

Neymar had tried to leave Paris in the summer. He wanted to go back to Barcelona, to the comfort of Leo Messi. So distressing had his time in Paris been that he was ready to accept failure just to be happy again. But fate conspired to keep him in Paris, and he knuckled down.

Now here he was, on the very stage he tried to run away from. And he was flying. Tonight Neymar was leading his side on the hunt. From the first whilst he was scorching forward at Dortmund, forcing them to make crunching challenges on him. Immediately you could almost smell Dortmund’s fear, and caution permeated their game.

No such issue for PSG who for the first time ever in a knockout round second leg had their talisman to lift them. Kylian Mbappé wasn’t well enough to start but no matter, Neymar was in full flow. He demanded the ball every single second PSG were in possession, he knew this was his stage. This was his time.

A corner was won, Angel di Maria whipped it in. Neymar bamboozled Achraf Hakimi with a rapier quick run into space. Di Maria’s ball was falling down, it was going to reach him. Neymar stooped and guided the header into the back of the net.

Yes. A diving header. That’s how Neymar blew this tie wide open. Not a free-kick, not a blistering dribble, not a stunning shot, a diving header at the back-post.

Dortmund were rattled. PSG were qualifying on away goals now, both of the strikes came from Neymar. Home and away. He even played a part in the build-up to Juan Bernat’s second, which put the result miles beyond Borussia Dortmund.

From there, Neymar could have played his usual driving game, but instead he just played it cool. Neymar was in the zone now, and he guided PSG through a second-half almost entirely absent of drama (save for a late scuffle which saw Emre Can sent off for shoving, guess who? Neymar) – there was no point where Dortmund even looked like thinking about scoring.

The full-time whistle came and went, and just like that Neymar had guided PSG into the Champions League quarter-finals again. In a way it was almost routine, mundane. And somehow, that’s appropriate.

The second best player in the world should guide his side into the Champions League quarter-finals scoring two of their three goals, right? Neymar has finally brought PSG up to his level, the elite level. Can they go further? With Neymar at the wheel and Kylian Mbappé riding shotgun, would you bet against them?