Football Features

Why Neymar is finally ready to ‘bury the needle’ in the Champions League with PSG

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:44, 12 March 2020

Cast your minds back to March 2017 and the Champions League round-of-16 second-leg ties.

It’s the 90th minute at the Camp Nou and Barcelona are winning 4-1 against PSG. The thing is, they lost the first leg 4-0 so they still need to score twice to go through. Luis Suárez has won a penalty and Neymar, not Lionel Messi, has stepped up. The clock ticks 10 seconds past 90 when the Brazilian slaps it home, wrongfooting Kevin Trapp. 5-1.

Five minutes later, Neymar set-up Sergi Roberto for the game-winning sixth goal. A historic comeback complete, one of the most dramatic nights of football ever played. And the last time Neymar significantly moved the needle in world football.

Back then, it felt like only a matter of time before Neymar pulled up alongside and eventually overtook Messi as the best player in the world. He was so close, closer than perhaps anyone has ever been since Messi’s ascension in 2009.

In the summer of 2017, when he joined PSG alongside Kylian Mbappé and Edinson Cavani, it felt inevitable that Neymar would lift the Parisians into the European elite where they truly want to be. Then, well, he just kind of didn’t.

Don’t be mistaken, Neymar has always excelled when fit for PSG. His numbers are absolutely ridiculous. He’s played 80 games, scored 69 goals and registered 37 assists across all competitions as a PSG player. Yet, does anyone care?

That may seem insulting, but PSG’s dominance of Ligue 1 existed well before Neymar and would have carried on without his arrival as well. Yes, they had just lost the league to Monaco but that Monaco side got ripped apart in the transfer market, including losing Mbappé to PSG themselves, so they were always going to get Ligue 1 back. The big issue for PSG is the Champions League.

The Parisians haven’t gone beyond the round-of-16 since 2015/16 when they made the quarter-finals. They haven’t made the last four since 1995, and have never been beyond that to the final itself. So that remains their white whale.

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Neymar arrived in Paris as a Treble winner. Back in 2014/15, he scored seven goals in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, playing a huge part in guiding Barcelona to their second Treble with goals in the quarter-final, semi-final and a strike to seal the season in the final itself. So, PSG had big expectations. After all, they witnessed first-hand how supernatural Neymar could be in Europe.

Yet they received no bang for their buck. Oh, sure, Neymar was magnificent in the Champions League when fit. Since joining PSG, he has more assists, dribbles and fouls won than any other player despite playing just one game in the knockout rounds. He was a group stage merchant, so who cared, right? They wanted the Brazilian to move the needle, and he simply didn’t look up to the task.

Injuries played a huge part in his problems, of course, but accusations of unprofessionalism went hand-in-hand with those injuries. PSG allegedly became so sick of him that they openly countenanced selling him back to Barcelona in the summer of 2019. The move never materialised, which is probably for the best from a PSG perspective because they finally have a healthy Neymar in the Champions League knockouts.

And, indeed, they are still in the Champions League knockouts because of Neymar. Because the Brazilian has finally started to move the needle. Two goals in two games against Borussia Dortmund sent PSG through to the quarter-finals (on away goals — Juan Bernat made it academic). The man they paid a world-record fee for has finally done the thing they paid a world-record fee for him to do.

Alright, so they’re technically paying €111m per European knockout goal right now, but with Neymar playing as well as he is at the moment, you’d expect that average to come right down. The Brazilian has lifted PSG up off their knees and carried them forward into the quarter-finals for the first time since he’s been in Paris. Forget moving it, now is the time for Neymar to bury the needle.

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