Updated: August 23, 2020 10:35:44 pm
For Neymar, there is more at stake than a Champions League medal when PSG encounter the rampaging Bayern Munich. In the verdict of tonight’s final in Lisbon would hang a lot of answers to the questions hovering over him. The world’s most expensive player – officially he cost €199 million, but unofficially PSG had shelled out around €450 million – has to prove that he is worth his price tag.
Why is the match so important for Neymar?
His signing was considered the ultimate signal of ambition, for both the club and player. For PSG, it was a strong statement of their Champions League aspirations. For Neymar, it was a loud pronouncement that he is ready to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadows and carve a legacy for himself. He wanted to be as central to the Paris project as Messi had been to Barcelona. Three years on, he has delivered to the club a lot in terms of quality and dazzle, but like with the national team, he has not quite won them the big prize.
An accusation levelled against him in the canary yellow of Brazil is that he goes anonymous in the big games, like the quarterfinal against Belgium in Russia. It rings true for PSG too, as he has been largely un-influential in the knockouts before the quarterfinal against Atlanta this year. There is a widely-held belief that it was unwise of him to join PSG. There are those who say that he is ‘good’ but not ‘good enough’ to orchestrate a revolution with the Parisian club. Plus there is a general consensus on Planet Football that Neymar is still a few paces behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi.
Sunday night is his best chance to banish perceptions and access the rarified space of Ronaldo and Messi. The triumph could act as a springboard to future success in the national stripes, more so with the COPA next year and the World Cup the year after. The match is equally important for PSG, a justification to their splurge, as well as the French Ligue, often ridiculed as the ‘farmer’s league.” Thus a face-lift for the player, the club and the league.
How has his role changed in PSG?
In Barcelona, he was always the understudy to Messi and Suarez. Though the Argentine did drop back a bit to furnish more space for Brazilian and the Uruguayan, he was still the conductor. Even in what is considered Neymar’s best night in a Barcelona shirt, when he orchestrated one of greatest comebacks in European football history, against his present employers PSG, it was Messi who bagged the plaudits.
In PSG, he is the main man, the system flexed to work for him. In Barcelona, he was a left-sided forward, and not the free, centre forward role he enjoyed with Brazil. His best spell at Barcelona came when he took responsibility with Messi’s injury. But in PSG, he has the freedom to roam where he chooses to, and he interchanges positions several times in a match. Sometimes, he’s the centre forward, sometimes a left-winger or a playmaker. Wherever he drifts, his colleagues drop into space he leaves behind. Barring his profligacy in front of the goal, he has been the heartbeat of the club. Something like Messi is to Barcelona, dictating the tempo and regulating ball supply.
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Has he evolved as a player?
Of late, he has metamorphosed into a fine leader too, though compatriot Thiago Silva is the captain. PSG manager Thomas Tuchel insisted he has always been a leader, but that was not the way it has always seemed. His indulgences on the field—too much cheekiness—were misconstrued as an extension of character. Too many hairdos and parties created an impression that he had plunged neck-deep into the high-life of Paris. Only that, he has galvanised PSG into a strong team on the cusp of European glory, instilled strong work ethics and derring-do.
Several times his gritty side has shone through this campaign. None more glaring than his role in the quarterfinal against Atlanta, where PSG trailed till the 90th minute. He was far from him best, wasted half a dozen goal-scoring chances himself, but he dug in, fought hard to retrieve balls, pressed and pressed and never gave up hope. There was none of the moodiness associated with him. He also didn’t make a big fuss of the fouls committed against him either. He didn’t fling himself onto the ground. His steely resolve sparkled as much as his silken boot-work. This was Neymar II. And this would be the Neymar who could rule the world, win awards and medals as he always wanted to.
How would Bayern plan against him?
It goes without saying that Bayern defenders have an arduous task in front of them. Not only in containing the versatile genius of Neymar, but also in stifling the pacy Kylian Mbappe and the ingenious Angel di Maria. The German champion’s high-pressing game could work for Neymar and Co, masters at beating the off-side traps and launching swift counterattacks. Hence, Bayern might choose to press less intensely as they had against Barcelona and Lyon. They might even deliberate on deploying a back three, more so with the ageing Jerome Boateng’s declining pace.
Central to nullifying the Parisian trio would be to congest Neymar’s space. A difficult duty as Neymar is so good at moving between the lines and operating in tight spaces. Besides, he has the vision and passing ability to wriggle out of any difficult position. So the Bavarians should look to close out the space between the backline and midfield, and given Neymar’s current form, Bayern could require collectivism and a bit of fortune to escape unblemished from the match.
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