In what was one of the most astounding and shocking results ever in the history of football, and certainly in the Champions League where it broke records, it provided the perfect stage for Brazilian forward Neymar to step up to the plate and finally show his claim as the potential successor for Lionel Messi at the Nou Camp.
Neymar reportedly told friends and team-mates before the game that he would score at least two goals as his side would mount the unlikely comeback, so after a fairly unremarkable individual performance and with three goals required to secure the victory on aggregate with only two minutes of normal time left, it seemed that his dreams were long gone.
Up to that point, the left winger’s biggest contribution was to win a penalty which gave the Catalans a real hope of achieving the miracle of winning by four goals to nil. The Brazilian was clumsily taken out by a tumbling Thomas Meunier to allow Lionel Messi to put the home side only one goal away from managing the unbelievable.
Fast forward to the 88th minute, and it seemed that all hope was gone. Edinson Cavani’s strike meant that Barcelona needed another three goals to emerge victorious on aggregate, surely an impossible task with only two minutes left on the clock. With a free-kick awarded for a foul on the Brazilian, Lionel Messi surprised many by giving up his duties to allow the number eleven to try his luck, and Neymar showed why as he fired a brilliant effort straight into the top corner.
A brief glimmer of hope had re-surfaced, but the pressure was growing and when Luis Suarez was taken down in the box, Messi once again surrendered his duties to give the responsibility to the man who fired the decisive penalty for Brazil at the Rio Olympics in the summer. So often having failed from the spot in La Liga, Neymar showed no sign of a lack of confidence and fired an assured penalty into the bottom corner with Kevin Trapp having been sent the wrong way.
Whilst many expected it to be Messi who would save the day for Luis Enrique and his side, it was the Brazilian who stepped up. One last throw of the dice, and a free-kick won by goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen almost 60 yards from his own goal, was played short to Neymar. With many screaming at the former Santos man to play the ball long into the box, others shouting to shoot, the 25-year-old showed composure and experience to dink a ball over the defence and perfectly onto the toe of the onrushing Sergi Roberto to complete the turnaround with one of the most incredible comebacks ever witnessed in sport.
Neymar has often been criticised for his inconsistency and his failure to live up to the big occasion, but Wednesday evening showed just how far he has come. With only 14 goals from 34 games so far this season, compared to 31 from 49 last season, has seen some question whether he would ever develop into the world-beating superstar that many had hoped that he would become.
Instead, that Sergi Roberto strike saw him equal his assist tally for the 2015/16 season already, with 15 fewer games played, as he continues to show how he has changed his gameplay to become less selfish and more team oriented. The change has been substantial, and whilst it may have seen more critics come his way, it has certainly helped his team.
Many had questioned whether Neymar was still the man to replace Lionel Messi long-term at the Nou Camp, but on Wednesday he showed that the Brazilian has no desire to wait around for the Argentinean to decline. Instead, he stepped up to the plate and took control in one of the most decisive games of the club’s recent history. Neymar is no longer the boy wonder, he is the superstar.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Faisal BinAli.