Neymar wastes golden opportunity to finally step out of Messi’s shadow
The tears came. David Alaba folded him in his arms at the final whistle in consolation and later he sat in the dugout on his own, rubbing his face in disbelief and running his hand through his Mohawk haircut.
This was not Neymar’s night and, as ever with the Brazilian superstar, the criticism will be unforgiving. They will say he choked. He blew it. They will delight in a high-profile failure by this preening football dilettante. They will say it proved, again, that the outrageous money spent on him and the outrageous amounts he earns continue to outweigh his outrageous talent.
Given Paris St-Germain lost so narrowly to a wonderful Bayern Munich team, were denied by some superb goalkeeping from Manuel Neuer, maybe should have had a penalty for a foul on Kylian Mbappe and spurned a host of chances, then maybe that criticism is harsh. But it will come.
What is undeniable – with the fine margins that exist at this level – is that Neymar did not take this opportunity to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow. He did not claim the crown that he craves. He did not grasp what was there for him.
With victory, Neymar would have justified, in one act, his world
record move away from Barcelona when he felt he would always be little more than a support act for Messi even if he has craved a return since, with the Argentine leading the demands to bring him back.
It came to a head last summer when Neymar stood accused by an exasperated PSG of simply not trying hard enough, of being warned by president Nasser Al-Khelaifi that no one forced him to sign for the club, and who was told in no uncertain terms by the fans that he was no longer wanted – only to respond by scoring an overhead kick winner in his first game back.
But scoring against Strasbourg is a bit different than trying to breach a Bayern defence in the biggest club game in world football. And yet he had chances. Two of them and, just maybe, in similar circumstances, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo would have taken one and that would have made all the difference.
In the first half Neymar ran on to Mbappe’s pass, did everything right, and shot across Neuer only for the goalkeeper to deny him with an outstretched leg before reacting sharply to block his follow-up as the striker tried to pick out Mbappe. Then, deep into second-half injury time with the desperation rising, he was again found by Mbappe, only to turn and shoot across goal and beyond the far post when, with a little more composure, he might have hit the back of the net.
And that was it. Those fleeting moments. The effort was there as he willingly did the so-called “doggies” (shuttle runs trying to close down defenders) sprinting between Alphonso Davies, Niklas Sule and Neuer. That confirmed he was part of the team. But PSG needed more.
At 28, it felt like this was Neymar’s time. He had shone in the quarter-final, instrumental in the comeback against Atalanta and he had been bright in the semi-final when he flicked the ball to Angel di Maria for the second goal against RB Leipzig. But this was what it was all leading up to. There was an image of Neymar arriving at the Estadio da Luz with a huge speaker and there is no doubt he has been calling the tune on and off the pitch for PSG this season. When a player is such a dominant character and personality it can be damaging, but Neymar has finally embraced PSG, organising dinners at his house, becoming a leader but, above all, working for the team. It was not enough.
Sometimes it is about seizing the moment, but it was difficult against such a disciplined opponent who double-marked him until his frustration boiled over after Bayern took the lead and he appeared to lose focus.
Neymar had the chance to run at Bayern, but was dispossessed by the formidable Thiago Alcantara, then tried a trick that surrendered possession again. It was a sign he was trying too hard, which inevitably meant he was dropping deeper and was less of a danger. Bad habits were now returning.
It ended. Neymar allowed himself a touch of the European Cup, a painful reminder of how close it was and then stared, moist-eyed into the distance as Bayern players collected their medals. The chance had gone. The big one. His face said it all. Will that chance come again?
Frustrated: Neymar’s dream of the glittering prize was dashed