With just over 20 minutes to go of Paris Saint-Germain’s taut Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund, Neymar unbuttoned himself. Kylian Mbappe, the other half of the most expensive attacking duo ever assembled by a club, had just come on as a substitute, and, with that sixth sense the pair of them sometimes use to communicate, Neymar hatched a plan.
He had his back to goal, loitering in a classic No 10 position. Because there were no supporters in the Parc des Princes, he may even have heard Mbappe’s rapid footfalls somewhere to his right. More likely, his peripheral radar picked up the French striker’s movement. Neymar barely glanced sideways as he tucked a delicate backheeled pass behind him to perfectly tee up Mbappe.
In the end, Dortmund’s defenders smothered Mbappe’s attempted shot. Otherwise, a sweet piece of choreography would have been celebrated and PSG, 2-0 up from the first half, and 3-2 ahead on aggregate, would have breathed a little easier for what remained of the game.
The Neymar backheel was out of character with almost everything else the Brazilian did on Wednesday night. It was his rare decorative flourish in a 90 minutes of earnest, unflashy diligence, when few risks were taken with possession, and many metres were covered in the dutiful tracking of opposition counter-attacks. At times Neymar seemed to be playing with coach Thomas Tuchel’s instruction manual in his left hand, open on the pages entitled ‘Keep Your Shape At All Times,’ complete with detailed graphics to help the user.
It was an excellent, all-round Neymar performance. There was his understated leadership in a PSG team missing, because of injury, some of its governors, like Thiago Silva and Marco Verratti. His studious awareness of his duties wide on the left, notably in policing the dynamic forays of Dortmund’s Achraf Hakimi were part of why PSG prevailed.
So, naturally, was Neymar’s goal, the strike that shifted the tie PSG’s way, to 1-0 on the night, triggering an away-goal advantage in the overall tie. Neymar had scored the away goal, too, a close-range finish from Mbappe’s cross. At the Parc de Princes, his was another poacher’s effort, a stooping header to meet Angel di Maria’s curled corner. Neither goal was a vintage, dazzling, primed for Youtube type, but they are two very important ones from a footballer PSG paid €222 million (Dh915m) for in order to make them a more potent force in the Champions League.
In the two-and-a-half years Neymar has been at PSG, they have not yet become stronger in Europe. Three successive exits at the last-16 stage made Wednesday’s confrontation especially tense, and the eerie atmosphere of an empty ground, its silence broken from time to time by the noise of fireworks and chants set off and sung by the fans gathered outside, was not always an alibi.
Neymar knew he was under scrutiny, via television at least, expected to deliver. In neither 2017/18, or 2018/19 was he the figurehead PSG wanted at this stage in the Champions League, injured for key games in those seasons against Real Madrid and then Manchester United. Against United, he lost his temper on the sidelines, so overheated and unwise in his public condemnation of the match officials after United had eliminated PSG via a disputed late penalty that he was banned for two European matches.
Neymar then spent much of last summer making it clear he would rather be somewhere else. His ideal move, back to Barcelona, never materialised, and there were even behind-the-scenes peace talks between PSG employees and season-ticket ultras about reducing the hostility towards the wantaway superstar. Neymar has since played well enough to stifle too much jeering.
Yet he still makes himself hard to love with frustrating regularity. He did it again in the closing moments of Wednesday’s otherwise masterly show of footballing maturity. There was his confrontation with Dortmund’s Emre Can, a forehead-to-forehead jostle following a foul, which ended with Can sent off and Neymar cautioned. “Ridiculous, exaggerated,” Dortmund coach Lucien Favre called Neymar’s fall after Can pushed him.
Then there were the celebrations. PSG had every right to be pleased, relieved, to congratulate themselves on their smart, industrious display. But Neymar chose to lead a celebration that had various players take up a yoga pose, mimicking the way Dortmund’s teenaged forward Erling Braut Haaland sometimes celebrates his goals.
Few Dortmunders appreciated the obvious tease. “Maybe you could argue how necessary it was,” admitted Neymar’s PSG teammate Thilo Kehrer, “but it’s all part of the business.” With Neymar, part of the business will always be showbusiness, even on nights when the audience have been kept away.