Lost somehow in the criticism that Brazilian superstar Neymar has endured from all corners of the soccersphere over the last few years, for a litany of transgressions both real and overblown — he’s a diver, he’s jealous of Paris Saint-Germain teammate/World Cup-winner Kylian Mbappe, he really regrets leaving Barcelona for the relative backwater of France’s domestic league — is the fact that Neymar remains one of the three absolute must-see players in the world’s most popular sport.
No, Neymar didn’t score on Tuesday, as PSG breezed past Germany’s RB Leipzig 3-0 to reach its first Champions League final. But Neymar was far and away the best player on the field.
That’s true even if Angel Di Maria, who notched a goal and an assist against Leipzig after serving a suspension vs. Atalanta, was a worthy Man of the Match. Neymar drew the foul that set up Di Maria’s perfect free kick onto Marquinhos’ head to send the Parisians on their way after just 12 minutes in Lisbon, where Europe’s elite eight teams assembled to finish out this coronavirus-cursed Champions League season following a five-month hiatus:
The quarterfinal hero strikes first!— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) August 18, 2020
Di Maria puts the ball right on Marquinhos' head and PSG takes the early lead. pic.twitter.com/YHVXLgzcfP
Neymar would also help set up his team’s second goal. After a giveaway by Leipzig deep in its own end, a jaw-dropping flick by the Brazilian made it easy for Di Maria to double PSG’s lead just before halftime:
That Neymar touch 😙👌 pic.twitter.com/QD3numqTPO— Champions League on CBS Sports (@UCLonCBSSports) August 18, 2020
And when Neymar, who seemed to slice though two or three would-be defenders every time he touched the ball, wasn’t creating goals for his teammates, he was coming close to scoring them himself, grazing the post on not one but two occasions in the first half and getting his head on Juan Bernat’s third goal just after it had already crossed the goal line.
Simply put, Paris Saint-Germain isn’t in this final without Neymar. Say what you want about PSG being wholly owned by the Qatari government — and it’s certainly deserving of scrutiny — but this is exactly why those owners paid Barcelona over $200 million for Neymar, more than twice the previous world transfer record, in 2017 to bring Neymar to the historically middling Ligue 1 club. (PSG added Mbappe a year later for about $180 million, the second-richest fee of all time.)
He’s done what PSG’s previous headliners couldn’t. Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who spent four years of his prime in France’s capital, never made it beyond the quarterfinals. The last thee seasons, they went out in the round of 16, with Neymar taking the brunt of the blame.
But Neymar has been Thomas Tuchel’s undisputed talisman throughout this run to the final that began way back in February, before the pandemic began, when he scored twice in a 3-2 aggregate win over Borussia Dortmund. When it’s mattered most, he’s carried his team on his back the way only a generational talent like he, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo can.
Now Neymar is off to his second Champions League final, having won one with Barcelona in 2015. And this time, he’s taking Paris Saint-Germain along for the ride.
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