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This is what Neymar wanted. This is what he came to Paris for. To star, by himself, in the knockout stages of the Champions League. To be the guy. To be the man most closely associated with a contender for the European crown. To win the Ballon d’Or along the way.
It has taken three seasons at Paris Saint-Germain. Three frustrating years beset by injury and frustration and controversy. Of early eliminations and suspensions for yelling at referees from the sidelines. The collateral damage was the collapse of Barcelona, which declined steadily just as soon as Neymar skipped town in a world-record transfer in the summer of 2017 and left Lionel Messi and his aging lieutenants to their own devices without an alternative to shoulder the load.
But Neymar is a Champions League finalist now, for the first time since leaving Barca, following PSG’s 3-0 dismantling of an unrecognizable RB Leipzig on Tuesday. In these bizarre circumstances, in this mid-summer conclusion to a Champions League that had laid dormant for five months because of the coronavirus pandemic, played in single-elimination games in Portugal, Neymar is getting his wish.
Bizarrely, he utterly dominated both the quarterfinal and the semifinal yet somehow scored in neither. In last week’s improbable comeback against Atalanta, Neymar had a hatful of sumptuous scoring chances but converted none of them. To the untrained eye, he appeared to have a bad game — a wasteful one, certainly. But Neymar was a menace to the Italians from the first whistle to the final one, poking and prodding at the defense, forcing them to foul him again and again just to prevent PSG from finding the kind of rhythm that can be anybody’s unmaking.
Neymar was the central cog. And if he shanked one finish after another, it was also his mishit that allowed Marquinhos to score the late equalizer. It was Neymar, too, who fed Kylian Mbappe as he set up Eric Choupo-Moting for the winning goal.
It’s a strange thing to be a game’s best player yet also its potential scapegoat. But such would have been Neymar’s fate had a few bounces fallen differently. Instead, he will play for his second Champions League title on Sunday, after winning his first in 2015 with Barcelona.
Because on Tuesday, too, he starred.
Just five minutes in, he was played through on goal but slipped his finish off the outside of the far post. Two minutes later, his pressure forced Leipzig goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi into a deflected clearance that Mbappe tapped into an open net, but the goal was called off because the ball had hit Neymar’s hand.
Next, Neymar earned the foul that led Angel Di Maria to drop his free kick onto Marquinhos’s head for the first goal. Neymar took another free kick himself in the 35th minute and, from an unimaginable spot, attempted to swing the ball into the net to the near post, a daring attempt that clanked off the woodwork.
But before halftime, it was Neymar’s dainty mid-air backheel that freed up Di Maria for the second goal.
No matter how hard he tried, and he tried and tried and tried, up to and including an attempt to rob a teammate of a goal, Neymar couldn’t get on the scoreboard himself.
But it didn’t matter. He didn’t need to score to convince anybody that he had won this game for Paris Saint-Germain. That he had delivered on that towering, record-smashing transfer fee for the club obsessed with conquering Europe. Unlike the Atalanta game, it was plain for anyone to see just how much Neymar had impacted the outcome, even if the box score did not list his name among the scorers.
PSG coasted into the first Champions League final in club history. They danced after the final whistle. Neymar was in the middle of the cheering huddle, shirt off, the pressure almost visibly falling off him. He is, at least, where he wanted to be.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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