LISBON: One of the reported reasons why Neymar decided to leave Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 was the Champions League epic between the two sides earlier that year.
Neymar scored Barca’s fourth and fifth goal in the 88th and 90th minutes and set up Sergi Roberto’s decisive goal for 6-1 deep into stoppage time as the Catalans famously rebounded from a 4-0 first leg debacle in Paris in the last 16.
But plastered all over the papers the next day was a photo of a jubilant Lionel Messi.
Neymar was hailed as the perfect addition to the Messi-Luis Suarez strike force during his 2013-2017 stay in Barcelona which was highlighted by the 2015 Champions League title but he would never be able to step out of the shadow of Messi.
PSG’s money-laden Qatari owners then splashed out a world record €222 million (RM1.1 billion) for the Brazilian in order to fulfil their own ambitious plan to win the elite event with him as the leader.
Kylian Mbappe followed for another huge fee but it took until this year for the star-studded team to find a way to become a real threat.
Until this season Neymar struggled with injuries, had suspensions, was frustrated with teammates and ridiculed at the 2018 World Cup for his constant whining and play-acting.
A star on social media with 141 million followers on Instagram he appeared more a diva than a team player but all this has changed dramatically over the past months and got full exposure at these unique Champions League finals in Lisbon.
Neymar didn’t score against either Atalanta or RB Leipzig but he tormented opposing defenders with the ball, pressed them without it, and even worked hard around his own penalty area.
“Two years in a row suffering injury at crucial moments, important for me and our team. Today I am whole, without injury, being able to help my teammates in the best possible way. I am too happy, very happy … very happy!” he said on Instagram early Wednesday.
“We made history today but we don’t want to stop here, we want more … let’s go in search of the cup, the TROPHY!”
Now 28, he is creating space for Mbappe, Angel di Maria and the others, and wonderfully set up di Maria for the second goal in their 3-0 against Leipzig with a backheel flick in mid-air. In the dramatic comeback win against Atalanta last week he set up Marquinhos’ equalizer in the 90th minute and was also involved in Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s stoppage-time winner.
“Neymar isn’t as good a player as Messi, nor does he score as many goals as (Cristiano) Ronaldo, but, if you analyse his impact on the game, he is, right now, the most decisive player you can find on a football pitch,” Spanish sports paper Marca said on Wednesday.
“The quarterfinals and semifinals of the Champions League have shown that. No one is better than the Brazilian when it comes to breaking through the lines with pace, dribbling and directness.”
The El Mundo paper said: “Nothing can be explained without Neymar but not everything explains itself only through him. PSG, up to now a collection of stars, are a team now.”
Neymar delighted in the success, danced with his teammates and posted a video with him singing along with Mbappe, as the pact the team reportedly made earlier in the season to unite for the great Champions League goal is one win away from being fulfilled.
“We are not that focused on the two of us any more. We have understood that we are playing with the others. We have managed to create a team in which everyone knows his importance,” Mbappe admitted.
Mbappe also said that Neymar was the obvious candidate to win the World Footballer award for the first time if Paris won the title, even if he failed to score once again.
“He is among the best in the world. He showed it again today. Maybe he didn’t score but we know that’s not the most important thing,” Mbappe said. – dpa