Is Barca's No.11 now more important to the team than Messi? The heir to the throne discussed by Andrew Murray...
‘Yeahbut’ can be a terrible, debilitating affliction.
“Yeahbut,” you’ll hear your hipster friend say, “Kid A is Radiohead’s best album because you have to work so much harder to ‘get’ it.”
It’s the same with James Bond films. “Yeahbut,” your film-geek mate, the one who goes to the cinema with a torch-pen to make constant notes, will say, “if you don’t focus on George Lazenby, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is comfortably the best Bond film from start to finish. Skyfall and Spectre just don’t cut it.”
It’s infected football, too, and one player in particular. In 2015, he won the Treble. He scored in the Champions League final. And for two months of the year, he’s been the best player in the world. His name is Neymar da Silva Santos Junior.
Fitting in with Messi
“Yeahbut Messi.” Two words (OK, three if you’re going to get all grammatical), yet they cut to the heart of the problem. Such is the draw of Neymar’s Barcelona team-mate, the Brazilian’s star can be subsumed by the supergiant with whom he shares a pitch. They’re friends, even the most cursory glance at their social media interaction proves that. “I have changed my game and my life a lot: before I came they said that I would fight with Messi: I knew that wouldn’t happen,” Neymar said. “From the start Messi has helped me.”
There must, however, come a point when the 23-year-old warrants exclusive top billing. His statistics are incredible. Neymar scored 13 goals in his final 13 games of last season for Barcelona – including in the Champions League and Copa del Rey finals – and no player in Europe was directly responsible for more goals than the Brazilian’s 15 goals and nine assists until the end of November 2015.
Best player in the world?
Those latter numbers are the most telling. From the end of September until the end of November, he has been the best player in the world. “He’s electric,” Barça boss Luis Enrique recently said.
“When he runs into the area, either they commit a penalty or he scores.” Goals and assists every game to go with the flicks, tricks and showboats that are permanent fixtures in the Neymar armoury, the consistency lacking in his game evaporated.
“Yeahbut Messi was injured.” True, but Barcelona needed someone to fill the void, to shoulder the responsibility in the Argentine’s absence. Los Cules lost 2-1 at Sevilla in the first Messi-less outing, the knives sharpening, yet Neymar led a fightback from 2-0 down, scoring and putting his hand up to lead.
Barça won the next game 5-2 against Rayo Vallecano. Neymar scored four of them. Crucially, he has maintained his form, even now Messi is back. In the No.10’s first start back from knee ligament damage against Real Sociedad, Neymar scored twice and was man of the match in a 4-0 win.
All of which augurs well for the next progression. Neymar adapted quickly to Europe and has improved season-on-season to become an undisputed member of the world-class elite alongside Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. With CR7, who turns 31 in February, potentially on the wane, this is the time for Neymar to split the planet’s pre-eminent stars. Some believe he’s already there. “He is the second-best player in the world, just behind Leo,” Luis Suarez recently said of the man topping La Liga's scoring charts.
XAVI'S TOP 5
- Messi: “He’s the best player in history”
- Neymar: “He had his best year for Barcelona. Brilliant”
- Suarez: “Vital in the most important moments of the season”
- Busquets: “Barcelona’s most important player”
- Iniesta: “So consistent, always”
“Yeahbut he didn’t exactly shine at the Copa America.”
That may be something of an understatement, his tournament lasting just two games after a red card for headbutting Colombia’s Jeison Murillo and subsequent tunnel confrontation with referee Enrique Osses. “You want to make yourself famous at my expense, you son of a b***h,” Neymar was overheard shouting, resulting in a four-match suspension and the end of his participation.
Without their best player and captain, an inert Brazil went out in the quarter-finals to Paraguay on penalties. Neymar is the Selecao’s inspiration – 46 goals in 69 games is a staggering international record – which means he can ill afford further acts of petulance.
Crucially, next summer brings another Copa America – to mark the competition’s 100th birthday – and offers a shot at redemption.
“There’s no pressure,” he told FFT last summer. “Being ‘the guy’ in the national team isn’t something that I feel. The penny has dropped. I’m just one member of the squad and I’m there to help. I have to score goals, otherwise Brazilians will kill me!”
He was joking, but there is certainly an element of truth to this, thanks to a country of 200 million people still coming to terms with the 7-1 defeat to Germany at the 2014 home World Cup.
Neymar’s international situation, however, is of relatively minor importance. Messi and Ronaldo have actually won fewer major international honours – discounting the Olympics – than the Brazilian’s 2013 Confederations Cup. Is Neymar as good as those two now? No, but he soon will be. And he’s just 23.