PSG: Neymar’s Champions League reckoning moment

But when it comes to the glaring lights of European football’s biggest stage – the Champions League – he’s caught in a never-ending cycle of repetition.
A one-time winner, yes – but for some vigorously backed by his towering South American counterparts – Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez – in the once famous “MSN” triumvirate in Barcelona.
On two occasions, misfortune has conspired to end the Brazilian prodigy’s chances of grabbing the competition in the red and blue colors of Paris Saint-Germain by the neck.

So here we are in 2020. Is it lucky the third time? Is this Neymar’s moment of truth?

There are now three games between the “red pill” of European Enlightenment and the “blue pill” of another footnote on the 28-year-old’s ever-growing Wikipedia page.

“This is the year he can really redeem himself […] These three games can change everything […] I don’t think he’ll have an opportunity like this again,” Brazilian football journalist Fernando Kallás told CNN Sport.
'All or nothing': Neymar's goal helped propel PSG to victory over Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League round of 16 in March

“Biggest mistake in the history of sport”

Ever since PSG investors from Qatar planted their flag on the cobbled streets of Paris in June 2011, they have made no secret of their ultimate goal – continental dominance.

Domestically, it was an era marked by relentless dominance. Seven league titles and five French Cup wins, including four trebles in six seasons.

But if Europa is a combination lock, they’ve been searching endlessly for the locksmith with the elusive key. They have tried in vain seven times to crack the complex code – each failure more painful and bitter than the last.

“A certain timetable has been set and if you go beyond that timetable every season, it seems like PSG are getting further and further away, so history weighs heavily,” said French football expert Jonathan Johnson.

The world record signing of Neymar from Barcelona in August 2017 – for a still stunning $263m – should provide this knight in shining armor.

No longer the backing singer to Messi and Suarez, but now the leading performer with a license to wow and become the best in the world.

For some it was a game changer; for Kallás it remains “the biggest mistake in the history of the sport”.

READ: How billionaires changed European football

A love-hate relationship

Noting the three-year anniversary of his move last week, the striker wrote: “(These) came with a lot of knowledge. I have had times of joy and some difficult ones.”

His connection to supporters in the city of love has cut through the gamut of Facebook relationship statuses: from “married” to “separated” to “it’s complicated.”

All with the allure of a former lover in Catalonia lingering in the background.

A protracted but ultimately unsuccessful serenade last summer to lure the Brazilian back to the Camp Nou boiled simmering tensions in Paris.

The love-hate relationship surrounding the polarizing figure was perhaps best summed up in the superstar’s first league appearance of the 2019/20 season.

Booed relentlessly for 90 minutes before delivering a terrific overhead kick to the death – half the naysayers were delighted; the other half angry.

Kallás paints a picture of juries similarly split down the middle in Brazil along the generations—the young pretenders who love “the picture, the smile, the tattoos” contrasted with the old guard who “really care about him ” is.

The cold war in Paris has now thawed, along with the realization that a return to the future – for now – is not an immediate prospect.

“He has shown on and off the pitch that he is committed to the project […] He really has to face the challenge of being a PSG player and achieving something, especially in the Champions League in Paris,” Johnson said.

While a new leaf may have been turned on the playing field, questions remain.

Ups and downs: The Brazilian's relationship with PSG supporters has vacillated between phases of love and hate

Will the boy become a man?

Neymar’s personal life bore – at times – the hallmarks of a gripping telenovela – full of intrigue and supported by an ensemble cast.

Last year he was cleared of wrongdoing after a Brazilian model accused the former Brazil captain of rape and assault.
He missed a league game this year through injury – two days after throwing a lavish birthday party at a Paris nightclub.

Those who try to force him to succeed despair: will the boy ever become a man?

“In Brazil we have an expression that says he (Neymar) is an endless promise […] That he is “Menino Neymar” (“Baby Neymar”) – he is not a boy […] He must be in reality […] He needs to grow up,” says Kallás, who has followed the Brazilian’s trials and tribulations on and off the pitch.

“When he’s on the pitch, he delivers […] I’ve never heard a manager or any other player complain about his attitude in training or in the dressing room.”

And for all the goals, assists and trophies to date, history and biology have given the sparkling-toed star a cruel hand – and denied him an opportunity to have a say in the business end of European football’s elite club competition.

Shortened seasons in 2018 and 2019 due to injuries coinciding with dramatic events consist for PSG of round of 16 stages at the hands of Real Madrid and Manchester United respectively.

“That’s what makes the rest of this campaign so important and why it’s being scrutinized so closely,” says Johnson.

“It’s All or Nothing”

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly – and perhaps favorably for PSG – changed the momentum for the final of this year’s tournament.

Gone are the two-legged knockout affairs from the quarter-finals, replaced instead by one-legged penalties – all within the Lisbon bubble.

Excluding the late sniper Edinson Cavani and recently eliminated Kylian Mbappé, the word belongs to Neymar.
First of all, Atalanta’s surprise package awaits in the quarter-finals; Then a possible clash with the battle-hardened Atlético Madrid in the semi-finals and then, who knows, a final where the winner takes it all.

While advances in the competition, according to Johnson, “would really give the (Qatar) project the boost it needs after a few years of massive disappointment,” for Kallás this month could be the start of a career-defining two years for the individual at the heart of the narrative.

With the Brazilian’s contract expiring in 2022 and a World Cup taking place in Qatar in the same year that will likely be his last in the Brazilian shirt, it’s all or nothing quite simply.

“We always say, ‘This will be the year. No – that will be the year. No – that will be the year […] He’s 28 years old, he should be at the peak of his career but he’s not […] It’s his last chance.”

The telenovela had its unforeseen twists, its moments of madness and its brilliance. Now it’s in the hands of its main protagonist to write the showcase ending. PSG: Neymar’s Champions League reckoning moment

Jake Nichol

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