It feels remarkable in many ways that it has only been three years since PSG shocked the footballing world when they activated Neymar’s release clause and brought the Brazilian to Paris for €222 million.
It was a cataclysmic quake that fundamentally changed so many things about football, for better and for worse. For so much of his time in Paris, Neymar has been the butt of jokes directed both at the competitive nature (or lack thereof) of the league he plays in, as well as his team’s repeated failings in Europe that did date back to before his time.
Yet they stand on the precipice of vindication, facing Bayern Munich for the right to be European champions. Victory for PSG would show they were right to splash out on Neymar, along with Kylian Mbappe and a host of other expensive outlays. Any sporting success cannot be addressed without the context of human rights within the regime that bankrolls the club, though. But the sole intention of this article isn’t to discuss those, that has been done by people with far more of an understanding of the situation. It does need to be mentioned though.
Moving back to the pitch, and to Neymar specifically. Let’s get this out of the way now: he left Barcelona to get out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and to win the Ballon d’Or and the Champions League without his former team-mate. That Barcelona have turned out to be a farce of a club in that time is coincidence - there’s no reporting to suggest that Neymar or his entourage saw this coming.
Regardless the fact remains that Barcelona have reached precisely zero Champions League finals since Neymar left and now Neymar has reached one. If he can take the final step and bring the trophy to France it will justify his decision.
For Eurosport France journalist Vincent Bregevin the time it has taken to get to this stage is no concern at all.
‘HE’S ACTUALLY LEADING PSG TO ITS BEST CAMPAIGN’
“Three years is OK considering Neymar was injured for the second leg against Madrid two years ago, and for both legs against Manchester United last year. He’s actually leading PSG to its best campaign in the first year he’s healthy enough to make it. “
Image credit: Getty Images
And it is that word, leading, that is most important. Many will dismiss Neymar for the way he rolls around or the fancy haircuts, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that he is an astonishingly talented footballer. It can often feel, particularly during the last few years, that a lot of people have lost sight of that a bit. Players like Robert Lewandowski, Kevin de Bruyne and even his own team-mate Mbappe have stolen his limelight in the battle to be the best after the big two of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi.
But Neymar is genuinely special. He’s an extraordinary footballer with mesmerising ball control and agility. He is capable of doing things that we have only really seen from the true geniuses of the game. It honestly feels that the only reason people dismiss Neymar is because they don’t like him. People judge him to be nothing more than a petulant child and write him off as such.
Yet his raw emotion after PSG’s victory over Atalanta and RB Leipzig was not an act. He seems to truly believe in this project and is taking the necessary action. As Julien Laurens outlined in a piece for ESPN , Neymar, along with Mbappe, decided to make more of an effort to connect deeper with team-mates before lockdown. As Laurens notes:
This is Neymar's team. If Herrera is the leader, Neymar is the figurehead.
“Neymar is clearly the key player for PSG’s route to the final.” Bregevin says.
“He was already before the quarter-finals, scoring a very important goal in Dortmund in the first leg and the opener in the second.
Neymar Paris St.-Germain
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“He’s the focal point of the team and he’s dominating the game, making all differences to create almost all opportunities.
“He also had a very important role to resist Leipzig’s pressure in the beginning of the second half. He’s the one giving all the confidence this team needs. But he’s not playing on his own. He makes players better around him. Like Di Maria against Leipzig.”
Some will quickly point out that PSG benefitted from being on the “softer” side of the draw. It’s certainly easy to look at it that way but it still contained the form team in Europe (Atalanta), one of best defensive teams around (Atletico Madrid) and a team with one of the rising stars - Julian Nagelsmann - in the coaching world (RB Leipzig). It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.
But Bayern will provide a far tougher test. They are obliterating their opposition right now and no-one has figured out a way to stop them. As much as the focus will be on PSG’s defence, the role of Neymar will be critical. His dribbling and control will be vital in giving his defenders time to breathe, particularly by winning fouls. But there’s more. He has to be more clinical. Some of his misses over the last two matches have been criminal and if he fails to take his chances against Bayern, they will ruthlessly punish him.
Bregevin isn’t so concerned. “It’s quite surprising because Neymar is usually very good at finishing,” he says. “But the point is that PSG scored three goals against Leipzig and none of them came from Neymar or Mbappé. That’s actually very good news for Paris.”
Paris Saint-Germain's Argentine midfielder Angel Di Maria (L) celebrates with Paris Saint-Germain's Brazilian forward Neymar after scoring his team's second goalduring the UEFA Champions League semi-final football match between Leipzig and Paris Saint-Ger
Image credit: Getty Images
JOB DONE, TIME TO LEAVE?
So what happens if PSG can pull it off? What then? At various stages over the past twelve months the assumption has been that he would return to Barcelona. But with everything that is happening at the Catalan club, and with the pandemic, that hardly seems likely.
“He’ll stay this year because no club can buy him,” says Bregevin.
“He has two more years on his contract and maybe a UCL win can help PSG’s board to convince him to stay.
But if Neymar wins the UCL, he will have the job done, so that’s also a reason to let him leave if he wants. For the right price, of course.
Maybe the crisis at Barcelona will open a new avenue for Neymar once he decides that his time in Paris has come to an end. Real Madrid would be deliciously tantalising, as would the Premier League. Even Inter Milan would put their hat into the ring if it became an option. If Neymar can move to another superstar club and then add a hypothetical third European title? That might cement his legacy into a truly special place. First though, there’s a job to do.