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.