Why Neymar and not Messi or Suarez should be lauded for Barcelona's comeback against PSG
It was the 87th minute of the game against Paris Saint-Germain. Barcelona were up 3-1 on the night but still down 5-3 on aggregate. Neymar stood about 30 yards diagonally to the left of the Paris Saint-Germain goal with his eyes on the ball in front of him.
Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior was a long way from his home in Mogi das Cruzes, Brazil. But he had practised this routine on the streets of his hometown since he was old enough to kick a ball.
The young Brazilian knew he had to make the telling the difference.
Before the game kicked off at the Nou Camp, before the first pass, few believed that Barcelona would achieve what they did when the final whistle sounded. No side in Champions League history had overturned a 4-0 first-leg away loss, ever.
Deportivo La Coruna stunned Milan with a 4-0 win at Estadio Riazor in 2004, but they had an away goal after losing 4-1 to Milan at the San Siro. Last night, Barcelona didn't have that luxury. They would have to conjure up a magical performance.
Luis Enrique said before the game, “If they can score four [against us], we can score six.” While not many took his words very seriously, even the man himself would have surely been sceptical.
Suarez gets the ball rolling
All eyes were naturally on Lionel Messi as the game against PSG kicked off. The mercurial Argentine was deployed in a deeper number 10 role by Enrique. However, it was the man starting to his left, the final piece of the jigsaw of Barca's famed MSN attack, Neymar, who would prove to be the crucial difference between the two European giants.
Luis Suarez poached a goal within three minutes after PSG failed to clear their lines. However, just nine minutes in, Neymar tantalised Meunier with his trickery which led to a rather ominous handball shout. The referee ignored the Brazilian’s claims and the game continued.
The Brazilian would go on to give the PSG right back, Meunier, a night to forget. In the 17th minute, in a flash of brilliance, Neymar cut inside on to his right foot on a Barca counter and unleashed a blinding effort aimed at the far post. The ball curled in a few milliseconds too late and narrowly missed the top corner by a couple of inches.
However, it was clear that the Brazilian was up for it. The look on his face and his body language said it all.
Barcelona grabbed another soon after as Iniesta refused to give up chasing the ball and back-heeled it onto Kurzawa's foot only for the ball to loop into the back of the net.
As the second half began, Barcelona needed something from someone on their side soon.
Neymar takes centre stage
The aforementioned culprits were instrumental once again. Iniesta fed Neymar down the left-hand side, and the Brazilian pounced, with such acceleration that it forced Meunier to slip at a vital moment. Meunier's head made contact with the on-rushing Brazilian, and he was sent to the deck as well.
The referee finally gave the Catalans a penalty after a brief period of indecision. Messi stepped up and slotted home, making it 3-0 to the home side. The scoreboard read 4-3 to PSG on aggregate, and the game was well and truly on.
However, Barcelona would land themselves in deep troubles soon after. In the 62nd minute, Edinson Cavani capitalised on a lapse in concentration at the back by the Blaugrana to make it 3-1. It dented the spirit inside the previously buzzing Nou Camp and ensured Barcelona had a mountain to climb if they were to make it to yet another quarter-final.
Surely, 3-1(5-3 on aggregate) was enough to see Paris Saint-Germain through to the quarter-finals. Or so most thought.
The Catalans huffed and puffed, throwing bodies, crosses and shots at the Parisians’ goal but nothing would come of it for the next 25 minutes. People say that the best players can change games in an instant. They say that even when time is running out, the best players somehow pull off the unthinkable. And Neymar is definitely one of the best.
PSG attacked and defended Barcelona collectively for 181 minutes over the two legs to gain a three-goal advantage over the Catalans as the second leg neared its end. Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior needed seven minutes to undo all that.
Neymar revives Barcelona again, sparks turnaround
To the collective sound of reverberating drums inside the Nou Camp, Neymar stood in front of the Barcelona faithful, unphased by all the slanderous statements in the press after the first leg result. He took a quick glance at goal and wiped the sweat off his face.
The drums started beating faster. He knew he had to score. He had practised this on the streets of Brazil as a child as well. This wasn't new to him, this was the same thing, except that it was on the grandest stage of club football, in his new home away from Brazil, against a world-class Paris side, with time ticking away.
With no recognisable run-up and just three steps, Neymar unleashed a swerving bullet towards goal. The ball would bend towards the near-post this time around, curl and go in.
In truth, Trapp in the Paris goal stood no chance whatsoever. The ball moved and darted into the top the corner as soon as it left the Brazilian’s boot.
The giant screen at the Nou Camp read 4-1 on the night and 5-4 on aggregate. Surely, it was too little too late?
Neymar, however, was not done. That goal sparked something inside the Brazilian, a fire began to burn. It invoked within him the spirit that had graced Brazilian football for a century before.
Barcelona won a penalty after Suarez was brought down in the box by Marquinhos a couple of minutes later. The clock read 90 minutes.
Neymar stepped up to the spot instead of Messi this time. It was his heir apparent (perhaps not so apparent anymore).
Neymar coolly slotted the ball to his right sending Trapp the wrong way. 90+1' on the clock, 5-1 on the night; 5-5 on aggregate. Neymar stirred up the crowd, raising his hands, urging them to get behind the team.
Paris Saint-Germain were still going through on away goals. But by now, every soul inside the Nou Camp began to believe.
The comeback is complete
Marco Verratti, who was immaculate in the first leg, could not comprehend what to make of the situation along with the rest of his team. He hacked down Messi about 30 yards from goal, earning a booking.
When a player is hot, it is always wise to give him the ball, and that is what Messi did as he left the free-kick for Neymar. The clock read 90+5'. Barcelona goalkeeper Ter Stegen made his way into the box as well. This was their last chance.
The initial delivery was cleared, however, Neymar made full use of the second opportunity, as he chipped a delightful ball over the top of the Paris defence to find the perennially slated Barca youth product, Sergi Roberto. His outstretched foot met the ball, and it immediately flew into the PSG goal.
Luis Enrique darted on to the pitch much like the Jose Mourinho of old. The Camp Nou erupted. Grown men, women and children wept tears of unbridled joy. Barcelona had just done the unthinkable, the unfathomable. They had overturned a 4-0 first-leg deficit even after PSG scored an away goal. The referee blew the final whistle, but nobody could hear it.
The final score read 6-1 (6-5 on aggregate) to F.C. Barcelona. And as the celebrations began, Neymar could be seen kneeling down on the pitch, with his finger pointed to the heavens.
The Gods and Brazilian greats of the past must have been gleefully smiling down from the heavens, as this young man had finally emerged from the shadows of his Argentine teammate. In a big game, with time running out, Neymar proved to the world why it was him, and not any else, whom the Barca faithful could count on when it mattered the most.
He would help in re-writing history that night. He ended the game with two goals and two assists (counting the Messi penalty) and forever cemented himself in Barcelona and the Champions League’s history books.
It wasn't Fergie time in the Champions League at the Nou Camp on this particular night, it was Neymar time. Seven minutes of Neymar time that will remain in Barcelona folklore for the years to come.
Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi were on the pitch that night, and they all played their part in the victory without a shadow of a doubt. But the stand-out player, the talisman wasn't the Argentine or the Spaniard or the Uruguayan, it was the kid from Mogi das Cruzes, Brazil. It was Neymar Jr.