No Messi, no Ronaldo: Champions League stage set for Neymar to prove he’s still Ballon d’Or-worthy
- Updated: April 7, 2021
The Brazil international moved to France to win the individual prize, but he has yet to write himself into the history books in that way.
The last time that the Champions League quarter-finals were played without either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, Neymar had celebrated his 13th birthday just two months previously.
The Brazilian has come a long way since then.
He has won domestic titles with Santos, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, and continental finals with the former two. He has also known the pain of defeat in the Champions League final with the French outfit.
Individually, he has won the Puskas Award, secured one of the richest contracts in the game and written himself into history by making an incredible €222 million (£198m/$263m)) move to Parc des Princes from Camp Nou in 2017.
What he has not won, however, is the Ballon d’Or – the game’s most coveted individual prize.
But with no Messi and no Ronaldo to play centre stage in the latter stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2005, this is Neymar’s opportunity to seize what he arrived in Paris four years ago to win.
Having scored 20 goals in 25 Champions League matches with PSG, it is a competition that Neymar has thrived in – at least when he has had the opportunity to play.
His story in the European Cup since moving to Paris has largely been one of injury heartbreak.
He missed the second leg against Real Madrid in the last 16 of the 2017-18 season, both matches against Manchester United as PSG were dumped out a year later, and even for last year’s Final 8 in Lisbon, Neymar was below peak fitness.
The injury curse has struck again this term, too. Surprisingly fielded by Mauricio Pochettino in a Coupe de France match against Ligue 2 side Caen in January, he picked up an injury that deprived him of a reunion with Barca.
In the event, a blistering first-leg performance from Kylian Mbappe guided PSG through against the Catalans, with Neymar unable even to make the squad for the return leg in Paris – a fixture he had been desperate to participate in.
And so to Bayern Munich and the opening match of a quarter-final billed naturally as a repeat of last August’s final – a match that the German side won, of course, thanks to a Kingsley Coman strike.
Neymar and PSG do not approach the match in good fettle. Pochettino’s side were the victims of a 1-0 loss to Lille on Saturday that leaves them trailing their rivals by three points in the title race, while Neymar was sent off late on following a frustrated outburst at Tiago Djalo.
This stoppage-time dismissal, which could deprive PSG of their star for up to three league matches in what promises to be a tight domestic run in, has once again led to questions over the mentality of the 29-year-old.
Former Barcelona and PSG player Ludovic Giuly compared Neymar unfavourably to Ronaldinho, telling TF1: “They have everything, but they don’t give everything to become even greater.”
Bixente Lizarazu, a World Cup and Champions League winner in his playing days, argued that “his behaviour is not that of a team-mate”.
It was former France, Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Emmanuel Petit, who launched the most scathing attack on Neymar, though.
“Neymar is both the problem and the solution,” he told RMC. “When you don’t learn from your mistakes – he’ll be 30 soon – it’s because you’ve been a kid all your life and everyone around you is turning a blind eye to your behaviour.
“He still hasn’t won the Ballon d’Or yet. He was predicted to be the successor to Messi and Ronaldo, but he’s still not got it and he’s close to turning 30.”
Petit went on to argue that Neymar has a detrimental effect on others.
“Some players are being ‘Neymarised’, starting with Mbappe,” the 1998 World Cup winner said. “For me, the player most representative of the PSG squad is Angel Di Maria.
“When Di Maria is playing and the other two are not there, he’s another player. He works hard for his team and gets in tune with them.
“When he is associated with the other two stars, all of a sudden he disappears. You get the impression it’s an individual sport and there is no longer a link between the players.
“When you’re the technical leader of your team, the star, you always have a duty towards your club.”
It is with this criticism ringing in his ears that Neymar, still not match sharp after nearly two months out, will take to the field at the Allianz Arena.
PSG will be without Marco Verratti and Leandro Paredes in Bavaria, and as such are unlikely to dictate much of the game. Neymar can look forward to feeding off scraps.
He will have to make the most of those, though, to not only silence his critics, but also give PSG a platform to progress to the semi-finals and take a step nearer the elusive Ballon d’Or that he dreams of.