Neymar has finally ditched the theatrics that have characterized his time at Paris Saint-Germain as the Brazilian belatedly shows his French paymasters the kind of commitment to the cause they expected when they signed him.
On Tuesday night against Leipzig, and just as he had been against Atalanta in the quarterfinal last week, Neymar was the font from which PSG’s attacks flowed, pushing his team to a first-ever Champions League final.
Against Leipzig, Neymar hassled and harried, he popped up on both flanks, he dropped deep to collect the ball. Untypically, he didn’t make a meal of some of the rougher treatment he received at the hands of the opposition.
The Brazilian has characterized the change in tone from PSG during their Champions League campaign in Portugal. Forced to come from behind against Atalanta in the quarterfinal, the French side dug deep where previously they would have wilted. In the 3-0 win against Leipzig on Tuesday, Thomas Tuchel’s team beat the Germans at their own pressing game, playing with high-intensity and marrying flashes of flair from Neymar and the exceptional Angel Di Maria with solid, well-drilled defending.
After the hundreds of billions spent by their Qatari owners, PSG finally look equipped to win the prize that has eluded them despite their embarrassment of domestic dominance – and the coming of age of Neymar in a PSG shirt has been integral to their challenge.
Neymar scrapped and fought against Atalanta and again against Leipzig with a tenacity that is hardly one of his hallmarks. The eye-catching flair that is his calling card was still there, although far more focused, channeled and purposeful.
Yes, he was guilty of spurning numerous chances of his own in both games, but far more worrying for his teammates and Tuchel would be a Neymar that is unengaged and uncommitted.
Instead, we have seen the opposite.
This, finally, is the type of player PSG thought they had bought when they paid €222 million in 2017, in the hopes that the Brazilian would help them take the leap from domestic dominance to European glory.
Neymar has, of course, already won the competition that his current club craves so badly, being part of the Barcelona team that claimed the Champions League title in 2015 – scoring three times in the two quarterfinal legs against PSG along the way.
Two years later, the Brazilian was the instigator of the famous ‘La Remontada’ against PSG at the Nou Camp when Barcelona overturned a 4-0 first-leg deficit in the teams’ last-16 tie.
That summer he swapped Barcelona for Paris, expected to bring with him the kind of magic he had produced in a Barca shirt as the new fulcrum of PSG’s own tilt for Champions League glory.
But until this current campaign, that magic had largely been conspicuous by its absence in Europe. The first season after his arrival saw a last-16 exit to eventual winners Real Madrid, with Neymar forced out of the second leg due to injury.
The Brazilian’s injury curse struck again the following season when he missed both legs of the last-16 tie with Manchester United, famously watching on in disbelief from the sidelines as the English club mounted a comeback in Paris.
On Tuesday in Lisbon it was a very different story. The pain was gone, replaced with pleasure. Taking to social media, Neymar pointed to the extenuating circumstances which had hindered his participation in PSG’s past two doomed Champions League campaigns.
“Two years in a row suffering injury at crucial moments, important for me and our team,” he wrote.
“Today I’m whole, without injury, being able to help my teammates in the best possible way. I’m so happy, so happy…
“We made history today but we don’t want to stop here, we want more… let’s go in search of the cup, the big ears, the TROPHY!”
‘Happiness’ is not a word associated with Neymar’s time in Paris up to this point. Almost as soon as he had arrived in the French capital, the rumors began that he wanted a direct flight back to Barcelona. Last summer, there was the added sideshow of the rape case against him – since dropped – which Neymar said had left him “scarred.”
But now there is a new commitment to the cause. The showboating which reared its head again earlier this season has gone, as have the theatrical rolls after tackles which have led to calls for Oscar nominations for Best Actor.
Neymar is now playing the leading role that PSG really wanted, at the heart of their push for European glory.
Neymar’s transformation may be down to the distraction of a Barcelona transfer finally being taken off the table. The Catalans are in a world of mess of their own, and perhaps for the first time for the Brazilian, staying in Paris looks like a far more attractive option. It may simply may be the case that, at 28, Neymar has matured and is more accepting of the responsibilities on his shoulders at PSG.
Neymar has now been directly involved in 59 Champions League goals in 59 Champions League appearances.✰ 35 goals✰ 24 assistsStunning record. Stunningassist. #UCLpic.twitter.com/cYwtGRsgDt
He has not taken PSG this far on his own, of course. He is ably assisted by strike partner Mbappe, and Di Maria was superb against Leipzig. Both men be crucial if PSG are to end their hunt for a maiden Champions League pitch.
Manager Thomas Tuchel also deserves credit for making PSG a more solid defensive unit. The clean sheet against Leipzig was PSG’s seventh in 10 Champions League games this season.
That defensive cohesion will still be put to the test in the final if – as most people expect – PSG end up facing the German juggernaut that is Bayern Munich, whose own relentless, ruthless game will pose a whole new level of challenge for the French champions.
But back to Neymar. The Brazilian has always, on his day, been among the most talented players in the world, laying claim to be top of the pile of the group of players which occupies the peak below that rarified air inhabited by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
One of the reasons for Neymar moving to Paris was for him to make that leap to the neighboring summit, to displace Messi – whose shadow he was in at Barcelona – and be crowned the world’s best player. Accompanying that was supposed to be the success that PSG craved in Europe.
It hasn’t worked out that way so far, but the signs are that at clutch moments in Europe this season, PSG are finally getting the player they paid all that money for three years ago.
The final hurdle will likely be the hardest for PSG in Portugal, but if they do go all the way in the competition that matters most to them, then Neymar will likely have had a lot to do with it.