Neymar finally repaying a huge debt as PSG stand on the brink of history
The show pony has become a workhorse as the French giants stand one game from lifting the Champions League trophy
For 89 minutes, it was an exercise in Schadenfreude. The world’s most expensive footballer kept missing chances, the underfunded underdogs were headed for the Champions League semi-finals and few missed the chance to revel in Neymar’s misfortune.
There is no scientific evidence that he is the planet’s most disliked player but there are times when he feels like it, and this was one.
A dramatic comeback against Atalanta and a comfortable win against RB Leipzig later, Neymar stands on the brink of a rare achievement. The French created the European Cup, but only once has one of their clubs won it, Marseille clinching the inaugural Champions League, in 1993, after the tournament's rebranding.
"Winning the Champions League is special, I know this,” said Neymar, a 2015 winner with Barcelona.
“But to win it with PSG would be making history, and that's exactly what I came here to do."
His route has been circuitous. PSG have reached the final in spite of his erratic finishing – he has had 10 shots in Portugal, but only two have been on target and none have gone in – but because of his unstinting efforts.
The show pony has been a workhorse. There have still been tricks, most notably the audacious flick to set up Angel Di Maria’s semi-final strike, but Neymar has put a shift in.
Maybe it is the least to expect in return for a €222 million (Dh961m) outlay that was extortionate by 2017 standards and feels still more ludicrous now. Neymar is destined to remain the costliest footballer in history for years to come.
Neymar’s fondness for playacting and his rampant narcissism have made it easy to deem him a failure.
Winning Ligue Un has left PSG unfulfilled but they have contrived to find different ways of getting knocked out of Europe.
And yet the last time Neymar was eliminated was in Barcelona’s colours, the 2017 semi-final against Juventus. He was injured when Paris Saint-Germain exited to Real Madrid in 2018 and again for the upset to Manchester United 12 months later.
Injuries and the inflated price tag are two reasons why he has not delivered value for money, but he has delivered. Over three seasons, a flair player averages a goal every 101 minutes in Ligue Un and the Champions League; he either scores or creates one every 64 minutes.
And yet despite that productivity, it is undeniable Neymar was signed with a solitary goal in mind. “The owners have a big project and part of that project is to be considered the best in Europe,” he said. “We've never been closer than we are now.”
Until now, there was a case for saying no one had won from his record-breaking transfer.
Barcelona had wasted a windfall, squandering the Neymar millions on Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, wasting plenty of other money and regressing and relapsing. Their Champions League exits grew more chastening, culminating in the 8-2 thrashing by Bayern Munich.
If there was a sense of impermanence about Neymar’s stay in Paris, the changes in footballing finances mean this is a longer-term relationship. Barcelona’s funds are now so depleted that a return to the Nou Camp is implausible even if, whatever outsiders think of him, it is notable Lionel Messi wanted an old sidekick back.
The assumption is nevertheless that Neymar’s ego rules. If, as is thought, Neymar moved in part to try and win the Ballon d’Or, he did not even make the 30-man shortlist last year.
For very different reasons, he will not win it this year, either, but beating Bayern would finally enable him to overshadow his former teammate Messi.
After flirting with embarrassment, he has the chance to be the best when it matters most.
Updated: August 23, 2020 07:12 AM