For Neymar, the success or failure of his move to Paris Saint-Germain could boil down to 90 minutes on Sunday.
The 28-year-old courted controversy in 2017 when he made the spectacular decision to move from Barcelona to the Parc des Princes outfit. A total of €222 million ($264m/£200m) – more than twice the value of the previous record transfer – swapped hands when he traded La Liga for Ligue 1, with many fans branding him a sellout for opting for what they perceived as the easy option.
He now stands on the brink of vindication, and a solitary victory against Bayern Munich would justify the frustration and hurt of his journey in the French capital.
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“Today we welcome the greatest player in the world. Our ambition is to win the Champions League and that has always been the case,” PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said as Neymar signed in August 2017.
Now, as Barcelona descend into freefall, his words are close to coming true.
It was Bayern, of course, who gave the deepest glimpse yet into just how far Barca have subsequently plummeted.
If Neymar’s departure at Camp Nou was a symptom rather than the cause of the decline at Camp Nou, it was evident how wretched a state the club finds itself in as they crumpled to a humiliating 8-2 loss against the Bundesliga champions, all but giving up in the closing 10 minutes of the game as they conceded three goals in a manner that would embarrass even amateur sides.
This contrasts sharply to one of the final games Neymar played for Barca in Europe, the famous ‘Remontada’, in which the Catalans humiliated PSG by recovering from a 4-0 first-leg deficit to progress 6-5 on aggregate in seemingly impossible circumstances.
Although it proved one the last great matches of that Barca era – they subsequently flopped against Juventus in the quarter-finals – it was an inspired Neymar that allowed them to get so far.
Similarly, the player so readily – and increasingly unfairly – considered a narcissist inspired PSG to score twice in the final seconds to turn around a 1-0 deficit against Atalanta in the quarter-finals and has played a major role in fostering a strong team ethic in the camp.
“I see him as determined to take PSG to the top,” club-mate Marco Verratti explained to Gazzetta dello Sport. “Having him in this physical and mental condition is an added bonus. Neymar is a leader who always plays and trains hard, an example to us all.”
And if Thomas Tuchel’s side are to get over the line, that is exactly what they require.
PSG have their mental scars in the Champions League, but those are not Neymar’s. Injury prevented him from featuring in either of the last-16 defeats to Real Madrid or Manchester United in each of the last two years.
Instead, he has largely positive memories of a competition he won with Barca in 2015, knocking out Bayern in the semis, scoring three of his side’s five goals across two legs.
Indeed, as his ex-agent and advisor Wagner Ribeiro commented earlier this week, the roles of the clubs have now been reversed. PSG are now looking down on Barca for the first time since 1995, when the French side came from behind in a Champions League quarter-final to secure a 3-2 aggregate win.
“Without a doubt, it’s easier for Lionel Messi to go to PSG than it is for Neymar to go back to Barca,” Ribeiro told Revista Placar. “Neymar is happy and I think he’ll stay at PSG for at least two more years.”
When Neymar left Barcelona, Messi’s future at the club seemed set in stone. Of course, there have been rumours that he might leave previously, but never have they carried the threat that they appear to this summer after a shambolic campaign. That the Argentine may consider PSG a better option than Camp Nou is especially staggering when viewed in the prism of 2017.
Indeed, it was the outsized shadow of Messi that was one of the reasons Neymar departed Barca. He wanted to make his own piece of history and create his own legacy.
Now, he is PSG’s Messi. Shifted into a central position, he is more involved in the construction of his side’s play, fusing his individual brilliance effectively with what is best for the side as a whole.
Only Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich has made more passes before a shot during this ‘Final 8’ phase, while only Marcel Sabitzer of RB Leipzig has completed more passes in the final third.
This is the key role that Neymar envisaged when he arrived at PSG and this is the stage he envisaged playing it on. Now only 90 minutes stand between him and the legendary status he has always dreamed of.
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