An inspired Neymar helped Paris Saint-Germain reach the Champions League final on Tuesday, but the fact that the Brazilian was not their best player against RB Leipzig says everything about the frightening strength of Thomas Tuchel’s team and shows why they can be confident of lifting the trophy for the first time.
Neymar has become a different player in his third year in the French capital. His first two seasons at PSG following his 222 million-euro ($264m) transfer from Barcelona were blighted by injuries and constant speculation about a move back to the Camp Nou.
When it became clear last summer that a return to Catalonia would not happen, he knuckled down and decided finally to make a proper go of it in Paris. This is the end result.
After scoring in both legs against Borussia Dortmund in the last 16, just before the coronavirus brought football to a halt, he was outstanding in the 2-1 quarter-final win over Atalanta last week in Lisbon and even better in the 3-0 demolition of Leipzig.
Neymar hit the post twice in the first half, including from an audacious free-kick wide out on the right as everyone waited for a cross.
The 28-year-old won the free-kick which led to Marquinhos’s opener, and it was his flick which set up Angel Di Maria for the second goal, ensuring it was game over by half-time, before Juan Bernat sealed the win.
The only thing missing was a goal of his own.
“What can I say to Neymar to help him score a goal when I scored maybe two in my career,” joked Tuchel.
“He scores in training, but he is playing exceptionally well, he is so, so strong. He has a winning mentality, a hunger to win and to show he is capable of being the best player in the world.
“If he scores in the final then I’ll be happy.”
Neymar later posted a picture on Instagram of himself lying on the ground in agony, a reminder of his bad luck with injuries in his first two seasons after arriving in Paris for that world record fee in 2017, which has clearly made him even more determined to succeed now.
“Today I am in one piece, with no injuries, able to help my teammates in the best possible way,” he wrote.
– Di Maria right at home –
There will be no Ballon d’Or this year, with organisers France Football cancelling the award because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Neymar will still have a strong claim to be the best player on the planet if he can lead PSG past either Bayern Munich or Lyon in Sunday’s final.
“I am sure that if we win the Champions League he will be in a position to win these trophies,” said teammate Kylian Mbappe. “He is destined to do so.”
Yet while Neymar and Mbappe, the two superstars and the two most expensive players of all time, dominate the headlines, there were standout performances all through PSG’s team on Tuesday. In particular, Di Maria.
The Argentine was once the major superstar at PSG before being eclipsed by his attacking colleagues.
Against Leipzig, on his return from suspension, it was he who set up two goals either side of scoring himself.
Di Maria looked right at home in the Estadio da Luz, where he turned out for Benfica for three years and where he was the man of the match for Real Madrid when they won the 2014 Champions League final against Atletico Madrid.
“It is going to be difficult to sleep tonight with the final in mind,” he said.
Nothing demonstrates the determination of PSG’s Qatari owners to conquer Europe better than their front three, who cost a combined 465 million euros in transfer fees alone.
This version of PSG, after years of underwhelming results in the Champions League, are now tantalisingly close to getting the ultimate return on Qatar’s huge investment.