Neymar steps out of Messi’s shadow to fuel treble talk
For a victory “defined by faith” according to Barcelona boss Luis Enrique, the Catalans rose from the dead inspired by the man who never stopped believing.
“As long as there’s a one percent chance, we’ll have 99 percent faith,” said Neymar before a ball had been kicked in Barca’s stunning revival from a 4-0 first leg deficit to beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1.
A few hours, two goals and a vital 95th minute assist for Sergi Roberto to cap the biggest comeback in the history of the Champions League later, Neymar hailed his display as the “best game” of his career.
“This is the best game I have ever played. For what it meant, for what we experienced,” said the 25-year-old.
Neymar hasn’t always had the easiest time since swapping Santos for Spain three-and-a-half years ago.
The murky series of contracts that sealed his transfer have seen Neymar, his father and Barcelona dragged through the courts on corruption and tax evasion charges.
Yet, it is for nights like Wednesday that Barca paid millions to recruit and then renew Neymar’s contract till 2021 in October.
Pre-match focus had framed the seemingly impossible comeback only realistic if Lionel Messi made it happen.
Instead, three times in a frantic final seven minutes, it was Neymar, not Messi, that took responsiblity and dragged Barca back from the brink into a record 10th consecutive quarter-final.
Firstly, he curled home a brilliant free-kick and then took over penalty duty, despite Messi having earlier converted from the spot, to leave Barca needing just one more.
Amid the bedlam of nearly 100,000 voices at the Camp Nou, Neymar then calmly cut inside with Barca’s last chance as the seconds ticked down to tease in the perfect cross on his weaker left foot for Sergi Roberto to apply the finishing touch.
– Ballon d’Or worthy –
“Not even in our wildest dreams could we dreamed the way it happened,” Neymar posted on Instagram alongside a celebratory photo of he and Messi.
“The impossible is just a matter of opinion.”
Messi and Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo have ruled the roost as the world’s two best players since 2008 – sharing nine straight Ballon d’Or wins.
However, Neymar’s display on the biggest stage left many in little doubt he is the heir to their crown in the future.
“A night worthy of the Ballon d’Or,” said Spanish sports daily Marca.
“With his speed, skill and powerful strike, PSG folded up against the best version of the Brazilian.”
Neymar is used to carrying the biggest burdens.
He took Brazil to the semi-finals of the World Cup on home soil in 2014 before his back was broken towards the end of a bruising quarter-final clash with Colombia.
Some measure of revenge for that blow was taken by scoring the winning penalty as the hosts claimed a first Olympic gold at the Rio Games in August.
Rather than be cowed, Neymar is inspired by the biggest moments when his side need him most.
And he could be the key with a suddenly revitalised Barcelona eyeing a second treble of Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey in three seasons.
“We believed before and now even more (so),” added Neymar.
After partying into the early hours of Thursday morning with three-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton, Barca and Neymar travel to Deportivo la Coruna on Sunday looking to avoid a hangover.
“It wouldn’t be a bad thing if Barca went out partying,” hopeful Deportivo boss Pepe Mel told radio station Onda Cero with his side sitting just five points above the relegation zone.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Espanyol v Las Palmas (1945)
Valencia v Sporting Gijon (1200)
Sevilla v Leganes (1515)
Malaga v Alaves (1730)
Granada v Atletico Madrid (1945)
Real Sociedad v Athletic Bilbao
Deportivo la Coruna v Barcelona (1515)
Celta Vigo v Villarreal (1730)
Real Madrid v Real Betis (1945)
Osasuna v Eibar (1945)
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