In August 2017 the biggest saga in football history came to an end, as PSG confirmed the signing of Neymar from Barcelona on a five-year contract.
The French giants paid a world record €222million (£198million), activating his release clause to bring him to Paris as they attempted to conquer Europe for the first time in their history. It was a move that saw many question the player, the club, Barcelona and the future of the game of football.
Neymar was expected to lead Paris Saint-Germain to a Champions League trophy during his time in France, and when the club added young phenom Kylian Mbappe to the side too it seemed inevitable that they would reach the pinnacle of European football.
However, Neymar’s time in the French capital has been mixed. In three seasons with the club he has played 82 times in all competitions, scoring 70 goals and registering 39 assists. When he plays, he’s unbelievable for them. But he doesn’t play nearly enough.
Since he’s been there, they’ve won Ligue 1 every year but that’s almost a foregone conclusion at this point. In Europe, they’ve been massively disappointing though. In both seasons they have failed to get past the Last 16, being knocked out by Real Madrid and then infamously Manchester United. Neymar played in just one of those four games though, the 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid.
This season, he was the difference in the last 16 round as PSG took on free-scoring Borussia Dortmund. The German side actually won the first leg in Dortmund, thanks to hot-shot Erling Haaland scoring a double. But it was Neymar who scored the away goal in that game to give his side a life line. In the return fixture, it was Neymar who scored the opening goal to put them ahead in the tie before being involved in the build-up for Juan Bernat’s goal.
Now with games becoming one-off knockout ties, PSG will feel they have a huge advantage over teams in the competition with their attacking talent. Neymar has been in good form and is physically fresh coming into the competition. When Atalanta face off, they’ll be wary of their usual style of play because they know Neymar is on the pitch and will punish them if they give him even half a chance.
We’ve seen Neymar drag teams through tournaments on his own before. At the 2014 World Cup, he alone pulled Brazil to the semi-final stage before a severe back injury saw him miss the game. They were famously destroyed 7-1 by Germany, but Neymar’s lack of availability was more than just physical. He is the leader on the pitch, the talisman. He’s the one that everyone looks to to get them out of trouble. While PSG have a plethora of superstars in their team, none are bigger or better than Neymar.
With Kylian Mbappe a doubt for their quarter-final tie with an ankle injury, the burden will fall on the Brazilian once again. It is something he thrives on and I expect he will drag PSG into the semi-finals, where they will take on the winner of RB Leipzig vs Atletico Madrid.
The question marks around Neymar’s move to PSG were all about whether he had damaged his legacy by moving to a league without much competition. His response was that he wanted to win the Champions League as the man, not in the shadow of Lionel Messi. He will never get a better chance than this.
It’s time for Neymar to take his throne as the heir to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, even if it is a few years later than we all expected.