If Barcelona end up winning the Champions League this season, they have Neymar Junior largely to thank for it for playing a huge role in ensuring they secured a berth in the quarterfinals against all odds. And maybe, just maybe, he will become the first player to break the decade-long Ronaldo-Messi Ballon d’Or duopoly as he’s shone for years but never looked quite capable.
Over the double-legged clash against PSG, the 25-year-old outshone the master, and was the one calling the shots for the Catalans. Not Messi. Perhaps the one-time acclaimed next best thing is finally starting to live up to the hype and justify the huge expectations that had always rested on his shoulders since he burst onto the scenes during his Santos days.
In the first leg drubbing, Neymar completed 82% of his passes, completed 8 of 14 attempted dribbles, registered 2 shots on target and created one single chance. Messi was more or less a spectator, and despite the fact that Neymar’s contributions amounted to nothing, his hunger and desire gave us a hint of what to expect from him in the 2nd leg.
At Camp Nou, Neymar didn’t disappoint as he announced himself as not just the true heir to Messi’s throne but as the king set to take over sooner than we all would have thought. Apart from 2 calmly taken goals and the assist of the year for Roberto’s tie-winning strike, the Brazilian completed 4 of 9 attempted take-ons, won 3 of 5 tackles, and 2 of 3 aerial duels as Barcelona snatched an unfathomable 6-1 victory.
But while 2 games aren’t enough to shower Neymar with all the praises in the world and crown him king of soccer, it can’t be denied that the South American star has made a solid case for himself as far as a very great future is concerned, and that 2nd leg seems to be the match that declares him as the real next greatest thing in the game.
It wasn’t a perfect start to 2016-17 for him, with participation in the Olympics seemingly having its toll on him as he missed the preseason training. His form in front of goal took a hit, and not even 7 Champions League assists during the group stages could paper the cracks.
To become the best in the world right now, or better put, to overthrow a Messi and Ronaldo, you have to score, and Neymar wasn’t doing that at a time, going 11 games across all competitions without finding the back of the net from late October to the end of 2016.
But just when it appeared to be the end of the campaign for him, with Barcelona’s chances of winning the La Liga and Champions League all but statistically over, he showed up. He showed up big.
From his impact in the Atletico Madrid game some 2 weeks after the Parc des Princes disaster, to having a hand directly in 6 goals in the 3 games that followed, Neymar has now perfectly set the stage for what should be his coronation as the only one to take over from Messi at Barcelona and become the world’s best player in the years to follow.