Why Neymar will be key to PSG's Champions League hopes
- Neymar has missed key Champions League games for PSG so far.
- PSG need Neymar to be fit and firing if they are to win Europe's biggest club trophy.
Let's wind the clock back to 8 March 2017. The venue was the Nou Camp, and Barcelona were about to take on Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg of their Champions League last 16 tie.
The odds were stacked heavily against them, after being thrashed 4-0 by Unai Emery's side in Paris. Even with all the talent available in the Barcelona dressing room, they were severely up against it.
It was normally Lionel Messi that Barcelona relied on to dig them out of situations such as this one. However, nobody anticipated the level of performance that Neymar was about to produce, with this match undoubtedly the stand-out match of his career so far. Playing on the left of the front three, it was Neymar who took the game by the scruff of the neck.
Despite being 2-0 up at half-time, Barcelona still had it all to do in the second half, and it was the Brazilian who came to the fore. After getting on the wrong side of his full-back, he won the penalty that allowed Messi to make it 3-0.
However, when Edinson Cavani pulled one back, it appeared that Barcelona now had an impossible task. But Neymar just got better and better. With 88 minutes on the clock, he struck a stunning free-kick into the top corner to put his team 4-1 up on the night. He followed that up by calmly slotting home from the penalty spot to bring the scores level on aggregate, but with PSG still due to progress courtesy of their solitary away goal.
But Neymar wasn't done. After his free kick was cleared, he picked up the ball and floated a delightful dink into the path of Sergi Roberto, who scored and sent the Nou Camp into raptures.
It would be no exaggeration to say that on that evening, Neymar had ascended to the throne of the best player in the world.
Neymar's time at PSG so far
It was his desire to win his first Ballon d'Or, and PSG's passion for lifting European football's most prestigious trophy, that precipitated the most spectacular transfer in football history in the summer of 2017.
Nobody ever expected that the brilliant Brazilian would leave Barcelona. The financial might of the French champions was known, but no one could have predicted that they would pay a world record transfer fee of £198 million to release him from his contract. They secured the services of the man who had broken their hearts on the greatest stage of them all in such spectacular fashion.
While Neymar has enjoyed some success in France, winning three straight league titles and scoring an impressive 69 goals in 80 games, the move hasn't been a complete triumph for club or player.
Neymar is still yet to win the Ballon d'Or, while PSG have again been found wanting in Europe. Neymar has had his critics during his time in France, as he has continually flirted with a return move back to Spain. The main reason behind both player and club not yet reaching their goals has been Neymar suffering injuries at the business end of both his full seasons in Paris so far.
During his four seasons at Barcelona, he was nothing short of outstanding in the Champions League. He was an absolutely vital part of the team that won the competition in 2014-15- he played 12 matches and scored 10 goals, including the third in a 3-1 victory over Juventus in the final.
Although he wouldn't win the competition again, he continually shone throughout his time at the Nou Camp, playing 40 games in the Champions League in total, scoring 21 goals and registering 19 assists. What was also particularly impressive was his contribution once Barcelona reached the knock out stages of the competition.
19 of those 40 games were played in the knockout rounds, with Neymar scoring 11 of his 21 goals in these matches. This highlights that he really was the man for the big occasion during his time in Spain.
Since signing for PSG in the summer of 2017, he has continued his impressive form in Europe's top tournament. However, injuries have prevented him from making an impact at the business end of the competition.
In 2017-18, his first season in Paris, Neymar was outstanding in the group stages, scoring six goals and claiming three assists as they cruised into the knockout rounds.
PSG were unfortunate to be drawn against Real Madrid in the last-16, and after losing the first leg 3-1, Neymar missed the return leg with a metatarsal fracture, which PSG lost 2-1.
2018-19 followed a similar pattern. He was once again outstanding in the group stages, and netted five goals, including a hat-trick against Red Star Belgrade and two assists. However, he missed both legs of the last-16 tie against Manchester United as PSG crashed out on the away goals rule.
In 2019-20, he missed the first four games of the group stages through injury and suspension. After returning for the final two games and scoring once, PSG finally had him available and fully fit for the last-16 tie against Borussia Dortmund.
It was for matches like this that the club splashed out so much money to sign him. It wasn't for domestic success. It was to make the difference in the tightest of games on the biggest occasions, like he had done so often for Barcelona.
And finally, after two-and-a-half years, Neymar was able to deliver what he was brought in to do. Although they lost the first leg, he scored the crucial away goal as Dortmund won 2-1. In the return leg, he was outstanding. He opened the scoring to level the tie on aggregate, and played a huge part in the 2-0 victory which secured his team's passage to the quarter-final.
This was the real Neymar, the one that PSG had been so desperate to see. When the Champions League does eventually return, and if he is fully fit and firing, PSG may never have a better chance to win the biggest club trophy of them all.
Published 09 Jun 2020, 23:19 IST