In the footballing dictionary, ‘world-class’ is often defined by a player’s ability to prove decisive in a match of high-importance. While other members of the team may take a step back, those with true talent become possessed demons, hell-bent on turning the tide in their favour. Dramatic comebacks are often a source of such performances as they provide all the necessary ingredients for a world-class player to take advantage of.
Some, of course, fail to do so, but others thrive in this hostile environment. The latest instalment in this rich tapestry of performances is Barcelona’s samba superstar, Neymar da Silva Santos Junior. The South American grabbed the Blaugrana by the scruff of the neck and dragged them to the glory of one of Europe’s greatest ever comebacks.
It all seemed over as the 88th-minute arrived. Edinson Cavani had secured a priceless away goal for Paris Saint-Germain, making the score 3-1 and leaving Luis Enrique’s men in need of three goals to overturn the initial four-goal deficit.
Many will have believed that even MSN couldn’t pull it off, but one element of world football’s illustrious front three made it so. Even Marco Verratti admitted after the match that most Barça players had surrendered: they thought it was over.
Neymar did not. A laser-guided free-kick, one which he had earned himself, arrowed into the top corner and inspired an amoeba-sized piece of hope, but then a penalty in the 91st-minute really placed viewers on the edge of their seats.
The Brazilian shrugged off all doubt, all the anticipation of the fans, and stepped up, perfectly placing the ball past Kevin Trapp. Now it was on, but the rest of the Barcelona team still seemed dejected, slow in the build-up and unwilling to take charge.
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Sergi Roberto’s goal – the sixth – to seal the comeback will have the Spaniard written into the threads of Barça folklore for years to come but it was the genius of Neymar that made it so – an implausible moment of talent which only few could make possible.
A sumptuous chipped pass into the box – with his weaker left foot, no less – fooled the PSG defence as they raised their arms in a desperate hope for offside. The only flags raised would be Blaugrana ones in celebration. It was a dazzling moment that few players would attempt at 5-0 up let alone in search of one of football’s most memorable moments. The Brazilian, with a swagger in his tone, said after the match that he instructed Sergi to get into the box as he knew he would find him. Cue scenes of pandemonium like no other.
The humble beginnings of a boy from the streets of Brazil who was then placed as the hope of a nation at the 2014 World Cup at such a tender age, all came to fruition in seven minutes of glory. Neymar recorded two goals and an assist in that time while PSG managed just four passes as an entire unit. Throughout the match, the enigmatic superstar patrolled the left side almost singled handedly, putting a stop to any hopes of a PSG counter-attack and driving at them with the penetrative dribbling he has become synonymous with.
It echoed many of the great virtuoso performances in recent years: Lionel Messi’s hat-trick as a 19-year-old against Real Madrid, Steven Gerrard’s solo display in Istanbul in 2005 and, of course, Rivaldo’s audacious trio of strikes against Valencia for Barcelona back in 2001. Truly, they’re expressions of the beautiful game that ought to be placed in a museum on a permanent loop.
These moments of magic, delivered in a slightly orthodox manner, define their timelines. Even over the course of Messi’s glittering career, from 91 goals in a calendar year to countless cup final medals, many revert back to his trio of strikes that sunk Los Blancos in that enthralling 3-3 draw.
Neymar himself has delivered countless big moments: scoring the decisive penalty against Chile at his home World Cup in the second-round shootout, sealing Barça’s 3-1 victory over Juventus in the 2015 Champions League final and, less than a year ago, thumping home an Olympic gold medal-winning penalty against Germany in Rio de Janeiro.
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The Parisien-crushing performance was not the only big moment Neymar has delivered – far from it – but due to the situation, the various complexities and the magnitude of timing it came under, it is so far his finest and will forever cement his elite status.
In many ways, the greatest comparison that can be made is between him and Gerrard, perhaps the Champions League’s two finest ever displays. What makes them so unique is that they are so rare because on very few occasions do players of this calibre enter the realms of requiring such a comeback. Usually, they are dominating teams with their talent, not having to defy the often predictable footballing script.
Sure, throughout the years Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane have dominated games with their brilliance and won matches almost single-handedly, but very few times have they been subject to such rigorous demands in one game and delivered.
Neymar did not envisage the word ‘impossible’ and his performance was the perfect symbol of one of European football’s finest seven minutes.
It some respects – especially if Barcelona actually win the Champions League – may even eclipse that magical night in Istanbul, largely because the Brazilian did not have a whole half of football in which to perform his magic; he had just seven minutes and 420 seconds in which three precious goals without reply were required.
The Brazilian prince of Catalunya has finally emerged from Messi’s shadow into the forefront and this performance could prove to be the catalyst as he seeks to become the rightful heir to the Argentine’s coveted throne.
He will never be the serial goalscorer his team-mate is – he is a different entity altogether – but the marauding left-winger does now share the most crucial of characteristics with the aforementioned greats: the ability to change any game.
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What Neymar must now do is use this display of rare ability to propel himself into the footballing stratosphere. At the start of the 2016-17 season, the Brazilian superstar looked tired, deflated and lost for confidence after a tiring summer in his homeland. The goals weren’t coming and many fans were questioning his actual worth to the team, but now these almost farcical thoughts have been put to bed.
Joey Barton once foolishly commented that Neymar was simply a “YouTube player” – a descendant from the Brazilian school of flash trickery but with neither the guile nor the physical prowess to make it in Europe.
The perfect illustrator of this theory was Denílson, once the most expensive player in world football when he moved to Real Betis in 1998. He was perhaps better placed on the beaches of Rio, rehearsing freestyle routines with a pina colada such was his attitude and application.
Neymar has the exact same skill-set as his predecessor, but the way in which he applies it will make him the icon of the post-Messi and Ronaldo era. He has that palpable connection between his own emotions and the game itself. This is not simply a job for the Brazilian star, it is a way of expressing himself and unleashing his natural talent.
This is what we saw in the Nou Camp on that famous evening. Like the few before him, the 25-year-old attached his emotions to a cause and took it upon himself to make it a reality.
My generation, who have been left drooling by the might of Messi and Ronaldo, should have taken great heart from the finest seven minutes of football I have ever witnessed. While already a star at present, it is this short snippet of ability that will echo through the ages. Connoisseurs will be left talking about it for years to come and those in pubs who witnessed it will say, “Where were you when Neymar inspired one of the greatest ever comebacks?”
By Danny Ryan @DannyRyan11