Momentum did not appear to be on Paris-Saint Germain’s side heading into Wednesday’s Champions League round of 16 return leg against Borussia Dortmund.
PSG trailed on aggregate following its loss in Germany in the first leg. World Cup-winning forward Kylian Mbappe was unable to start following an illness severe enough that he was checked for coronavirus. (The test came back negative.) Oh, and speaking of COVID-19, the global outbreak forced the game in France’s iconic capital to be played sans fans.
Because of Neymar, none of that seemed to matter when the contest actually kicked off inside an empty Parc des Princes. The Brazilian superstar sent PSG on its way to the quarterfinals Wednesday with an early goal that swung the series for good in a 2-0 win, 3-2 on aggregate (via Turner Sports):
Juan Bernat added a second for the Parisians shortly before halftime, and Thomas Tuchel’s side put on a defensive masterclass to keep Erling Haaland — who had both of BVB’s goals in the opener — and the rest of Dortmund’s fearsome attacking corps at bay for the final 45 minutes.
But make no mistake: PSG wouldn’t be in the final eight without Neymar.
Still just 28, the former Barcelona striker has found himself increasingly overshadowed by the younger Mbappe over the last two years. Mbappe’s health was a huge talking point in recent days, not just because of coronavirus fears; the 21-year-old had been in lights-out form, with three goals and an assist in his last two Ligue 1 matches. There was a feeling, understandably, that the home team would struggle mightily to advance without him.
Yet it was Neymar who scored PSG’s vital away goal last month at the Westfalenstadion, albeit from Mbappe’s assist. And he was a bona fide one man-show on Wednesday even after Mbappe entered from the substitutes bench with about a half-hour to go. Neymar was a constant presence in the center of everything, driving his team on through sheer force of will.
He started the sequence that led to Bernat’s finish:
He got under Emre Can’s skin to the point that Can manhandled him following an altercation, resulting in the Dortmund midfielder getting sent off. (Neymar was shown a yellow.)
Granted, it’s those sort of antics that have sullied Neymar’s image in recent years. His reputation for diving was cemented as Brazil bombed out of the 2018 World Cup which, juxtaposed with Mbappe’s title with Les Bleus and Best Young Player award, helped dull the veteran’s shine even more.
Neymar was a great player but not a winner, was how the story went. Even PSG’s fans turned on him this summer, as he reportedly tried to engineer a return to Spain with either Barca or Real Madrid. Against Dortmund, with the 19-year-old Haaland fast approaching superstar status himself, Neymar had something to prove.
Prove it he did on Wednesday. This one meant something to Neymar, that much was made clear by the way he ran around the center of the field with his arms spread wide following the final whistle. Later, the television cameras caught him pumping his fists and screaming in celebration with his teammates, who surely knew they wouldn’t have moved on without him.
Now Neymar is off to the quarters, a winner at least on this night.
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