Neymar recently scored his 100th goal for Barcelona – a milestone which puts him ahead of illustrious compatriots such as Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. And he has already scored more than 50 times for Brazil – all at the age of 25. These are extraordinary numbers, though there is a feeling that the best is still to come.
Many of Neymar’s goals for his country have come in friendlies. This is hardly his fault. He began his international career at a time when Brazil, as hosts of the 2014 World Cup, were restricted to non-competitive matches. He has, though, played three tournaments at senior level (that World Cup, plus two editions of the Copa America) without being able to stamp his presence all over them – that, he surely hopes, will be put right in Russia next year, because he was quite magnificent in the recent qualifiers against Uruguay and Paraguay, when Brazil booked their place at the tournament with four rounds to spare.
At club level, there has perhaps been a feeling that he is the third member of the ‘MSN’ attacking trio. The side, of course, is set up for Lionel Messi. And Luis Suarez, arguably the best centre-forward around, has been crucial to Barcelona because of his ability to play on the shoulder of the last defender, thus lengthening the pitch and opening up space for his team-mates.
Indeed, only recently there were concerns about Neymar’s form. This, some in Spain argued, was his worst season with Barcelona. The numbers were not encouraging and the player was accused of shuffling disinterestedly through matches.
All that talk came to an abrupt end with the epic last 10 minutes of that extraordinary Champions League game against Paris Saint-Germain. Neymar had worked hard as his team chased down their 4-0 first leg deficit, but until the 87th minute he had endured a largely frustrating evening.
Then he went mad. In the course of seven sensational minutes he whipped home a glorious free-kick, stepped up and took the responsibility to take a penalty, which he coolly slotted past the goalkeeper, and then – saving the best for last – magnificently calibrated a chip over the Parisian defensive line which allowed Sergi Roberto to complete one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the game.
From being worried about his attitude, now some were stating that Neymar was on course to be voted the world’s best player.
It is an extreme reaction. But that incredible spell seems to have done him a power of good, inspiring him to new heights. He carried that form into the World Cup qualifiers, where along with moments of individual genius, he started to produce something else. In the first half against Uruguay, when the rival coach had not set up his midfield well, Neymar took full advantage by cutting in from his starting position wide on the left and taking control of the game, showcasing something of the quiet generalship that Messi often exhibits.
As the quarter-finals of the Champions League loom, it will be fascinating to see how much his Barcelona team-mates look to Neymar, as well as Messi, to organise the attack and break down the Juventus defence.
If the Brazilian rises to the challenge, then it will change his future. At some point, in order to achieve his ambition of being chosen as the world’s best player, it has always seemed likely that he would have to leave Barcelona and move away from Messi’s shadow. Those last few minutes against PSG pointed to an alternative path, where over time the baton passes naturally to Neymar.
First, of course, he has to produce, and produce again and again, on the high-pressure occasions. Barcelona fans will not need reminding that it was at precisely this point last season that they fell away - right after the MSN trio had all crossed the Atlantic for two rounds of World Cup qualifiers at the end of March. They lost that vital bit of sharpness and the team paid the price. Might that be the case once more? If so, Juventus should be sufficiently organised to take advantage.
Looking a little further ahead, there is some good news for Neymar fans. Brazil are not taking part in this year’s Confederations Cup. Neymar has played in a summer tournament every year since 2011, but this time he can put his feet up and give himself some well-deserved physical and mental relaxation – and then come back with a tank full of gas for 2017/18, the season which he hopes will end with him making the definitive statement of his extraordinary talent at the Russia World Cup.