Ahead of Barcelona’s ‘mission impossible’ in Wednesday night’s Champions League last 16 second-leg tie against Paris Saint Germain, there was a consensus around the Camp Nou that any hopes of overturning the 4-0 first leg deficit rested on the shoulders of one man.
Lionel Messi dominated the pre-game build-up, with everyone hoping for a huge performance from the team’s talismanic player. But things turned out quite differently.
Instead, it was Neymar who led the side through their quite incredible three goals in just 549 seconds as the Catalans won 6-1 on the night to make history and qualify for the quarter-finals.
When all seemed lost, after Edinson Cavani’s goal had given PSG what seemed an unassailable cushion, and many fans had started heading for the stadium exits, Neymar was the one Barca player who stood up and his example helped propel the team over the line and into the next round.
With 88 minutes played the Brazilian drove straight at the PSG defence and won a free 25 yards out. Seconds later he arrowed a superb free-kick right into the top corner. Moments later, after Luis Suarez tumbled in the box, he grabbed the ball even though Messi had earlier netted a penalty himself. During the added five minutes, Neymar was again everywhere. He booted the ball away in frustration as the referee allowed PSG’s third substitute Grzegorz Krychowiak to slowly enter and eat up valuable seconds. Having earlier been booked, he was perhaps lucky amid all the chaos to avoid a second yellow. As then he would not have been able to trick the PSG offside trap and deliver the inch-perfect cross [with his bad foot] for Sergi Roberto to complete the comeback.
It was a quite amazing spell of influence from any player, at the most important time.
“This is the best game of my life,” Neymar admitted on Spanish TV moments later. “For the history, for the goals, for the level of the team.
“I’m in good form at the moment. I’m very happy.”
Since the disastrous 4-0 first leg in Paris on St Valentine’s night Neymar, now 25, had been building up the possibility of a comeback in the dressing-room — even making a bet with some team-mates that he would score at least twice in the second leg.
“Before the game we believed we could do it,” he said on Wednesday night. “The defeat in Paris damaged us a lot, but here we could play without pressure, and with joy. It was difficult, but we have started to play well lately. A week ago I was crazy to play this game, and to go down in history.”
As Neymar headed out to celebrate the victory, with his good mate Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, local fans and pundits were unanimous in pointing to the night’s hero.
“It was a 6-1 never seen before, a 6-1 with just half of Messi, a 6-1 just a quarter of [Andres] Iniesta,” Ramon Besa said on El Larguero.
“Neymar provided all the weight missing from Messi, who was not the protagonist expected, and Iniesta, who was not fully fit.
“He was the one who lit up the stadium when the fans were heading for their cars.”
Besa said that Neymar had driven the team to a victory more dramatic than anything achieved under even former legendary coaches Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola.
“It was [Neymar’s] night, he carried the team,” Besa said. “Cruyff’s Barca never had a comeback like this. Neither did Pep’s Barca. Today Barca achieved it.”
There was less credit for departing coach Luis Enrique, whose relationship with the local media has soured completely. But there was some curiousity over the likely impact on Messi’s deadlocked contract talks, with the 30-year-old now having just over 12 months left on his current deal and no sign of agreement between his father and the board. Neymar said on Wednesday night that he was “sure” that Messi would sign a new deal. But a changing of the guard could be coming.
Wednesday suggested that the emergence of a new leader at the Camp Nou.
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