Neymar falls short in Champions League final and left wondering if his day at PSG will ever come
There he was. The sunglasses perched on his forehead, flattening the otherwise neatly coiffured mohican, with a boombox hanging from his left hand. Neymar da Silva Santos Junior is accused of enjoying the limelight a lot for a player who voluntarily slinked off European football’s centre stage three years ago, yet he walked into the Estadio da Luz as if he had never left and he was in the mood to celebrate.
This is it, after all. This is what your decade-long soft power project fuelled by sovereign wealth can live and die by. What the three-peat champions of ‘The Farmers’ League’ would happily bet the farm on. This is why you double the world record transfer fee, distort the market and pay your €222m. This is the time to deliver. And yet, in the dressing room at the final whistle, the boombox will have been silent.
To be fair to Neymar, his entrance was more than a little tongue-in-cheek. For every one of Paris Saint-Germain’s games during this Champions League mini-tournament in Lisbon, clubs back in his native Brazil have celebrated ‘Ney Days’ – mass social media campaigns paying tribute to the mohican, the shades, the music and the ostentatious personality with which he is associated. And he decided to join in.
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The campaign was designed as a nod to the exciting young player which he was while coming up at Santos, but also the more well-rounded footballer that he has gradually become under the tutelage of Thomas Tuchel. It was intended to represent a personal journey, one that would enjoy its finest hour in Lisbon with him proving that he can succeed in a team of his own – not that of Lionel Messi – by leading Paris to their first European Cup.
That project has failed, or at least not yet succeeded, as Neymar did not succeed in exerting the same influence on this final as he did in the quarters and the semis. The spectacle of relentless counter-attacking in which he and Kylian Mbappé were supposed to thrive only briefly threatened to break out but never fully transpired. Six-time winners Bayern Munich always had a decisive element of control.
The first half was everything we were told not to expect – taut, tense and goalless – but as compelling as any straight shoot-out. The beauty of this sport is that it is low-scoring, that the first goal also has the potential to be a final and telling blow. Both Bayern and Paris played as though always aware of the power that would come with making that breakthrough and of the fear that would strike them should they be the ones to fall behind.
It was not as though they played scared. Alphonso Davies occupied his usual position on the halfway line, confident his speed would rescue him on the recovery. Leandro Paredes was a one-man case against nominative determinism, breaking down walls with his exquisite and ambitious passing rather than building them. The eventual match-winner Kingsley Coman was the most fearless of all, terrorising poor Thilo Kehrer.
And yet amid all caution and circumspection, the first clear-cut chances fell to Neymar himself. He came close to taking the first of them. His shot after being slipped through by Mbappé appeared to be sneaking through Manuel Neuer’s legs, until a telling deflection slowed the ball down and sent it away from goal. The rebound would give Neymar a second chance from a narrow angle, but Neuer was able to turn, recover and block at his near post. That, in retrospect, was the moment.
His all-round performances against Atalanta and Leipzig more than made up for his poor finishing in those games, though the same could not be said on this occasion. From thereon, he was a peripheral presence, not involved half as much as Tuchel needed him to be. It can happen to the very best players and the very biggest stages. He has already won the Champions League before individually of course, and he was not alone in playing poorly on the night. Mbappé’s misses were the more egregious.
Mbappé, though, is 21-years-old. His time will surely come. Neymar is the wrong side of 28 with a chequered injury history and at a club who are yet to establish a pedigree at this level. That was the gamble he took in leaving Barcelona – that he would be able to inspire PSG towards greatness, single-handedly so if necessary. That is what he wanted from his move – as well as the many millions, of course – and yet three years in, he has so far fallen short.
That fact appeared to run through his mind as he wiped tears from his eyes after the final whistle, nestling his head in David Alaba’s chest. He had stepped off the team bus ready to celebrate, but he, Paris Saint-Germain and the many thousands of well-wishers back home are still waiting for ‘Ney Day’ to come.
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