If he had not gone to 63 boulevard Victor Hugo, where the American hospital is located in Paris, to be examined by experts for bruises and a sprained ankle, where they believe in medicine in Paris Saint-Germain, one would swear that Neymar reached the Champions League Round of 16 on Monday morning – at least as far as the round of 16 of PSG with Barcelona is concerned.
A little less than two weeks ago, the Brazilian international said with a smile that I would like to be back on the field with Leo [Messi] more than anything – next year I think we should do it.
What Neymar probably meant was that it was time for the PSG to take advantage of Lionel Messi’s impending free agent status. Just a few months after his resignation from Manchester City, the Argentine player can openly negotiate with the club of his choice, and then sign next summer with Barcelona’s most beautiful rivals, with no transfer fees.
How quickly Neymar’s wish came true.
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It is fitting enough that he and Messi can brag 48 hours after Valentine’s Day about their admirable talents at Camp Nou – although they disagree, instead of coming together for the same purpose, as they both wish.
We know that even the puking Brazilian player could not have secretly messed with the Monday round of 16 game, as he was the victim of a brutal challenge on Sunday night that left him in tears, fearing for his season and desperately waiting for the faint buzz of an MRS ankle scan to give him the positive news. Fortunately, the French champions were able to announce shortly after the draw that Neymar had to rest for three to four weeks because of his ankle injury and that he will be back in top form in mid-February.
I know that this draw means that we are going to see endless pictures, at least statistically, of the biggest comeback in the history of the European Champions Cup. And frankly, Harry Houdini would find it too shocking to lose 4-0 in the French capital and then win 6-1 at the Camp Nou with almost the last kick of Barcelona’s game to eliminate the Red and Blue the last time these Eurocrats met almost four years ago.
But there is a hidden story in the entanglement of the fate of these two clubs. It’s about Neymar and Messi.
The Catalans won five of the six games in this league. Perhaps most painful was the fact that PSG failed to retain the first European trophy they won in their 26-year history. That was in May 1997, and Ronaldo’s penalty – the third last goal he scored for Barca – helped Sir Bobby Robson’s team win the Cup Winners’ Cup, not the Parisians.
So when the seemingly overpowering French champion Unai Emery left the Parc des Princes in the Catalan capital in 2017, you didn’t have to be a Parisian with an exceptionally long memory to prepare for a loud race: Vengeance is ours! (Vengeance is ours!) Of course, football is a chimerical mistress, and Parisian hopes were shattered by a formidable achievement from Barcelona and a remarkable lack of morale among Emery’s men, who largely faded.
But that’s not all.
When Edinson Cavani scored in the box with 28 minutes to go, the score was 3-1, but 5-3 added up for PSG. That meant Barcelona had to score three more times to avoid elimination. It stayed until the 88th minute. In a matter of minutes – 120 seconds, plus any injury time – Barcelona desperately needed three goals. It was a task as titanic as you can imagine – unless you were responsible for literally cleaning the stables of King Augeus, whose horses are immortal and produce an enormous and inexhaustible amount of manure.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Can Neymar and Lionel Messi meet again next season in Paris Saint-Germain? Alex Caparros/Getty Images
But Neymar remained the best six minutes of his life, thanks to a truly divine free kick (yes, Messi got it) in the 88th minute. In the 94th minute, thanks to his painless penalty, Phil Mickelson’s forward pass stayed on Sergi Roberto’s outstretched boot for the winning goal at 94:48 – 12 seconds. There are few or no better examples of a person taking on an impossible task, facing insurmountable obstacles, and making this task count.
Watch the scenes again on YouTube if you like. That’s the kind of underwear football was invented for. Nobody is aware of their actions, and the guest players are confused, totally unsure about what happened. The Barcelona players and staff literally mimic the headless chickens – jumping in one direction, changing course seconds later, wailing and yelling at each other to confirm that what they think they see has gone well.
Whatever happened, it was Neymar’s night.
But the image that immediately became the symbol of this incomparable return, because of the photographic splendour of the composition and the person it represents, belonged to Messi. Not Neymar.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Game
Julien Laurent believes that the only way to bring Neymar and Lionel Messi together is for the Argentinean to move to Paris.
You know how it is. Taken by Mexican freelance photographer Santiago Garces, it immediately became the most watched Messi image ever posted by Barcelona on all their social media platforms. While the other fighters are still lying on their bellies or running wild across the field, Messi jumps behind the goal that Sergi Roberto just scored and stands alone on one of the billboards, silhouetted against the night sky, his right hand high above his pretty face with a clenched fist. What makes this image so special is that Garces (who says: I thought Barcelona could fight, and that’s why I placed myself among the fans behind the goal) bends so that the cheering group of fans perfectly frames the articulate attitude of Messi, the king of everything and everyone.
Legends in the locker room and on the training field suggest that Neymar is no longer sure he can claim the Ballon d’Or, leaving his friend and teammate as world number one. The fact that on the evening of his greatest individual performance he was still the Barcelona No10 who worshipped the whole world helped to seal his decision. Seven official Barcelona matches later – four for the Spanish Championship, two for the elimination of Juventus in the next round of the Champions League, then a lukewarm Copa del Rey final against Alaves – and Neymar was gone.
This turned out to be a Pyrrhic solution for all parties involved. Messi has lost an important person – mentally and athletically. Barcelona’s decline was first gradual and then rapid.
There were times for Neymar, but none of them were what he really wanted. There was no Champions League to win, no springboard to win the 2018 World Cup, not even a hint of Ballon d’Or.
Messi saw today just what can be achieved if you decide to play well, focus your mind without mercy and play with a well-built team – a reminder of the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo delivered with some sway at the Camp Nou last week. In my opinion, this would undoubtedly have helped Messi to realize that he is content with mediocrity in the short term, while Barcelona is being rebuilt, or that he is exchanging the club for a chance of greater satisfaction and great victories as he approaches his mid-30s. This is no time for a footballer to joke, let alone the greatest of all time.
Barcelona will elect a new president in January. Whoever it was, Xavi may have hired as general manager until PSG’s visit in February, so that the Catalan, who will succeed Ronald Koeman, can take over in June. Whether the new regime is really desperate to keep Messi, or whether it will discreetly set aside the enormous financial cost of keeping him, will remain the subject of debate for a long time to come. What Neymar and PSG are doing against Koeman’s Barcelona may in any case be fundamental to what Messi is going to do with his (still) incredible talents.
There’s a little black humor left.
Neymar, for reasons that he is the only one who can really understand, has for several years now found a way not to play in mid-March (injury, suspension, dismissal) to attend both his sister’s birthday party and the Rio de Janeiro Carnival. The return of the leg of this beautiful tie will take place on the 10th. March in Paris, the day before Raphaella’s birthday.
With what is at stake, with Neymar desperately trying to convince Messi to leave his Mediterranean idyll and join him in icy Paris, not to mention a desperate desire to eliminate Barcelona and get rid of a club threatened with lawsuits and counterattacks since his departure in 2017, Rafaelle and Carnival could this year without a PSG mascot. But for a good cause.
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