One month after leading the most improbable of comebacks, Neymar earned himself the scorn of Barcelona’s fans with a pair of senseless bookings.
He’ll get a chance to redeem himself on Tuesday when his team faces Juventus in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals.
Neymar picked up a pair of unnecessary yellow cards on Saturday and got sent off with 25 minutes left and his team trailing by a goal at Malaga.
Without him, the undermanned side lost 2-0 and squandered an opportunity to close in on Spanish league leader Real Madrid, which was held to 1-1 by Atletico Madrid.
Neymar’s infractions bordered on the absurd. Or tragicomic. The Brazilian got his first yellow card for bending over to tie his boot laces and not giving space for a Malaga player to cleanly take a free kick.
Then, knowing he was one false step from leaving his team with 10 men, Neymar charged into a Malaga player with no real chance to win back the ball.
As if he hadn’t hurt his team enough already, Neymar may have made matters worse by sarcastically applauding the assistant referee as he exited the field.
The sending-off meant Neymar will be suspended for the next match against Real Sociedad, but his added dose of bad attitude could earn him an extended suspension, putting in danger his availability for the match at Madrid on April 23 that will go a long way to deciding the domestic title.
Referee Gil Manzano included Neymar’s sarcastic applause in his report to the Spanish federation’s competition committee, which will meet on Tuesday to decide the length of his suspension.
The front page of Barcelona-based sports daily Sport on Sunday summed up the incredulity of Barcelona’s supporters by splashing the headline “UNFORGIVABLE” over a photo of Manzano showing Neymar his well-deserved red card.
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique tried to deflect criticism of Neymar by pointing at Manzano’s decisions.
“There were nasty tackles from behind that didn’t earn bookings, while other fouls committed by us were,” Luis Enrique said. “The rules are to be interpreted, but they should be the same for all.”
Excuses aside, what a month is has been for the Brazil striker. His two goals and last-gasp pass for the winner in the dying minutes of Barcelona’s historic 6-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain on March 8 earned him praise.
The result sent Barcelona through 6-5 on aggregate, making it the first team to overturn a 4-0 first-leg loss in the competition.
Neymar’s performance, which he rightly called the “best of my career,” appeared to mark a watershed moment for the 25 -year-old Brazilian. Suddenly, he wasn’t just Lionel Messi’s flashy sidekick; he had willed Barcelona to victory as only a true leader can.
Now, with his reputation tarnished, Neymar heads to Turin for the first of two legs against a Juventus side he helped beat two years ago in the Champions League final to give Barcelona its fifth European Cup.
Europe has suited Neymar again this season. While Messi leads the Champions League with 11 goals, Neymar tops the competition with eight assists, to go along with four goals of his own.
Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta insisted on the need to regroup for the Juventus match.
“There isn’t long to go and mistakes are most costly as we reach the end,” Iniesta said. “Now we have to switch focus and concentrate on the Champions League, a competition that is very enticing. What we have to do is go there and play a great game.”