The evo­lu­tion of su­per­star Neymar

Barcelona’s Brazil­ian for­ward has added def­er­ence to dead­li­ness and left Ron­aldo and ri­vals trail­ing in his wake

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - TOTAL FOOTBALL/SKY BET CHAMPIONSHIP -

Not so long ago, the podium in Span­ish foot­ball had one real vari­able, and the trick for pre-sea­son sooth­say­ers was to in­ter­pret some­thing no more com­pli­cated than a grid of noughts and crosses. Cham­pi­ons? Real Madrid or Barcelona, a pat­tern in­ter­rupted just once in the last 11 years. Top scorer? The boaster at Bern­abéu, or the lit­tle fel­low at Nou Camp. Bal­lon d’Or? Same an­swer. Cris­tiano Ron­aldo or Lionel Messi.

At its most in­tense, the ri­valry of the 21st cen­tury’s two out­stand­ing foot­ballers has been about throw­ing down fresh gauntlets from dif­fer­ent cor­ners of Ibe­ria, some­times on the same evening. A Ron­aldo hat-trick in the cap­i­tal at cock­tail hour against some poor vis­i­tor from An­dalu­cia gets an­swered, af­ter din­ner, by three, maybe four goals in a night in Cat­alo­nia for Messi.

The last time nei­ther player ended up as La Liga’s scorer of the great­est num­ber of goals in a league cam­paign, was in 2009, be­fore Ron­aldo reached Spain. Only once in the past five years has the win­ner of that award scored fewer than 40 times in a 38-match sea­son.

Over the past two months, how­ever, a new form of turn-tak­ing has be­come fash­ion­able. Messi missed most of that pe­riod with a lig­a­ment prob­lem, while Ron­aldo, though still pro­lific, has had an un­usu­ally er­ratic run in that his goals have been un­evenly con­cen­trated, not spread smoothly week­end af­ter week­end.

The duel at the sum­mit be­longs to oth­ers, and they doff their caps to one an­other with ex­ag­ger­ated po­lite­ness. When Barcelona’s Neymar does not score a brace, or per­haps three goals, Barcelona’s Luis Suárez will. Week in, week out. They have 26 goals be­tween them al­ready to­wards Barcelona’s dom­i­nant po­si­tion in the ta­ble, 13 games into the sea­son.

Neymar, with 14, leads the rank­ings and does so at a rate Messi and Ron­aldo have es­tab­lished as par in their unique strato­sphere: more than a goal per game. He might have had more. He let Suárez take a penalty against Vil­lar­real last month. Sev­eral times on Satur­day, when Real So­ciedad put them­selves at the mercy of the most for­mi­da­ble for­ward line in Europe, Neymar might eas­ily have scored the goal that would have se­cured his hat-trick. He chose to pass in­stead, when to shoot would have been rea­son­able.

Def­er­ence has be­come Neymar’s trade­mark qual­ity as much as his dead­li­ness as a fin­isher. He spent much of the last quar­ter of the 4-0 vic­tory against Real So­ciedad making the pen­e­trat­ing runs that have be­come in­stinc­tive while in the cor­ner of his eye see­ing how best he might set up Messi to score a goal on the Ar­gen­tine’s first full game in La Liga since his Septem­ber in­jury. Come the 89th minute, fol­low­ing a flour­ish­ing move with Neymar its cen­tre­piece, the plan worked. A Neymar cross, a Messi tap-in.

The Barcelona coach, Luis En­rique, watched on like a par­ent pleased to see his kids shar­ing out their time eq­ui­tably on the gar­den tram­po­line. “With the re­sult set­tled,

‘Neymar, Messi and Suarez have such an un­der­stand­ing they feel the party’s not over un­til all of them have scored’

they looked for a way that ev­ery­one could score,” he said of his front three, Neymar, Suárez and Messi. “They have such an un­der­stand­ing they feel the party’s not over un­til all three of them have scored.”

There is a fine line be­tween this sort of com­plic­ity and show­boat­ing. Barcelona on their cur­rent form do swag­ger, and they can ex­as­per­ate their ri­vals, as Neymar was re­minded last week­end dur­ing the hu­mil­i­a­tion of Ron­aldo’s Madrid at the Bern­abéu. The Madrid sub­sti­tute, Isco, irate at see­ing the Brazil­ian slip past him and his col­leagues again and again, swung a boot at him, and was in­stantly sent off.

Neymar is an ir­ri­tant. Since he ar­rived in Spain in 2013, as a 21-year-old and Barcelona’s most ex­pen­sive re­cruit, he has made some en­e­mies. Last sea­son, the play­ers of Rayo Val­le­cano com­plained he was taunt­ing them, adding one trick too many to his one-on-one con­tests, making his cel­e­bra­tion dances too friv­o­lous.

Sev­eral Atlético Madrid foot­ballers have felt the same, and told him so. But those mo­ments of bump­tious­ness have be­come fewer, rarer. In the ab­sence of the in­jured Messi, he has led by ex­am­ple.

The ma­tur­ing of the player is marked out in the dif­fer­ent ways he scores. Against Real, there was the ac­com­plished cen­tre-for­ward now be­ing al­lied to Neymar’s ex­cel­lence as a drib­bler and fin­isher from wide po­si­tions; both his goals came from well-timed runs to meet low crosses.

The ma­tur­ing of the man, mean­while, is sign­posted by greater dis­cre­tion. Neymar is still his own most loyal pa­parazzo, lively on so­cial me­dia, star of what his com­pa­tri­ots call ‘Ney­mar­ket­ing’, the cul­ti­vat­ing of his hip im­age for spon­sors and ad­ver­tis­ers. But, apart from go­ing to a party in Brazil dur­ing the last in­ter­na­tional break and join­ing some Barca col­leagues in Hal­loween garb as they made their way out of Getafe’s sta­dium, there has been lit­tle for any­body lately to cite as ev­i­dence of dilet­tan­tism.

Then there is the very thick skin. In the 2½ years since Neymar joined Barcelona, rev­e­la­tions about the deal that brought him from San­tos have led a Barcelona pres­i­dent to re­sign, and to tax in­ves­ti­ga­tions in two coun­tries. All this ap­pears to breeze past him. As for his pric­etag, it hangs loose on his shoul­ders. The more that fil­ters out about the com­plex trans­fer, the more it is clear Barcelona’s ini­tial dec­la­ra­tion that they in­vested €57 mil­lion in his sig­na­ture was in­ac­cu­rate, and that the value they placed on him was prob­a­bly closer to dou­ble that. Right now, they would re­gard €120 mil­lion as a snip.

Ma­tur­ing: Barcelona’s Neymar leads the way in the La Liga scor­ing charts with 14 but also has his fair share of self­less as­sists

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