Neymar stepping out of Lionel Messi's shadow with his brilliant play for Barcelona
The ‘man of the match’ award has long been seen as a worthwhile recognition of one player’s excellent contribution to a game. Whether chosen by a former player turned media pundit, TV viewers’ text poll or [even] more scientifically via WhoScored.com’s detailed statistical analysis, being named the best player on show has always brought kudos.
It was also generally useful from a practical sense - from the immediate reward of the sponsors’ bottle of champagne to the extra leverage it provides for agents when negotiating a new club contract or personal sponsorship deal.
WhoScored.com’s version of the award accurately shows which La Liga players are shining most for their teams. Cristiano Ronaldo’s string of exceptional individual performances through the season’s first four months for Real Madrid brought him 11 such prizes.
Villarreal’s Denis Cheryshev (5), Celta Vigo’s Nolito (5), Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann (4), Sevilla’s Grzegorz Krychowiak (4) and Espanyol’s Lucas Vazquez (4) have also got just rewards for consistently being their team’s standout player this season.
Even less-widely hailed players such as Levante keeper Diego Mariño, Granada midfielder Fran Rico and Athletic Bilbao centre-back Xabier Etxeita have had their own efforts recognised with three ‘man of the match’ awards each. So spare a thought for poor Neymar - who has yet to receive even one such prize, due to the continuing brilliance of his Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi.
Messi’s amazing recent form, along with the fact that he is (almost) never rested by Luis Enrique, should not hide the fact that Neymar is having a great season. The Brazilian has the third highest average rating (7.97) of all players in La Liga - closing the gap significantly on second placed Ronaldo over recent weeks. He now has 17 goals in 20 Primera Division appearances this term - a goal every 84.9 minutes.
This prolific rate has been achieved despite a shots per game ratio much lower than that of either Messi or Ronaldo (2.9 compared to 4.9 and 5.8 respectively).
Neymar has also put in a number of outstanding individual performances. Two goals and an assist against Elche in late January merited a 9.93 overall WhoScored.com rating. November’s goal and two assists in the 5-1 dismantling of Sevilla brought a score of 9.33. He was even awarded a very rare 10 out of 10 mark for a hat-trick in September’s 6-0 win over Granada.
However each time Messi managed to do even more in the game, on his way to taking the man of the match awards in 16 of his team’s 23 fixtures so far in La Liga. Barca’s Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets have all managed one individual award each. Despite being Barca’s second highest rated player on eight separate occasions in La Liga this season, Neymar’s not picked up a single one.
What may happen if Neymar was always forced to play second-fiddle must have been a concern when Barca put together the complex deal to sign the starlet from Santos back in summer 2013.
This is a much-hyped starlet who, from a very young age, had always been the most talented and highest profile player in his team. At just 22 was his country’s leader as they hosted the World Cup last summer. To his credit though, he has not looked put out in the slightest about operating in Messi’s shadow.
Right from his presentation Neymar claimed to be delighted just to be playing in the same team as Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and company. His first few months in Catalonia were marked by a tendency to look to pass to his older teammates even when well placed himself. That saw him notch up almost as many assists (8) as goals (9) in La Liga this season. This term’s figures - 17 goals and 4 assists - suggest he now has no trouble going for goal himself. Nevertheless he remains in Messi’s shade.
Despite this Neymar does not appear to feel undervalued or downhearted at a lack of personal praise. You could now even argue that, despite being the youngest of Barca’s front three, he actually plays a positive role in helping their quite different personalities all gel together.
Neymar was able to get a rare smile from Messi when they were both benched against Real Sociedad during Barca’s ‘mini-crisis’ in early January. He was the man in the middle as the South American trio ran, linked together celebrating Messi’s clinching goal in the 3-1 against Atletico last month.
Another sign of how far their relationship had developed came when Messi stepped aside to let Neymar take a penalty against Villarreal in the Copa del Rey earlier this month.
That apparently happened as the notoriously single-minded number ten wanted to help out his mate who was having a rare bad game. Such generosity to fellow attackers is not something that former teammates, from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Isaac Cuenca to David Villa, remember from playing alongside the quasi-autistic perfectionist.
Such a harmony has been key to Barca’s current run of 11 consecutive victories in all competitions, which equals the club record set during Pep Guardiola’s time in charge. Messi has 14 goals and seven assists over that spell, only just besting Neymar’s tally of 10 in terms of the former.
The pair combined for the opener in Sunday’s 5-0 win over Levante in what was a pretty typical Barca goal as Messi cut in from the right before weighting a perfectly-timed ball to meet Neymar’s run infield off the opposite wing. Just as meaningful was the Argentine raising a hand in apology after shooting himself when Neymar was better placed.
The common respect was clear, and afterwards Neymar told Spanish TV: “It is an honour to play with (Messi). He is fantastic. He’s a friend off the field and on it as well.”
These comments were delivered with a confident grin, but without any hint of anything disingenuous. Messi's 10 out of 10 overall rating again won him the man of the match award against Levante. Neymar managed just 8.6, but did not look too upset. He knows now he'll get to share the kudos (and probably the champagne) either way.