FootballFootball LeagueLigue 1

After a year to forget, Neymar is showing the world he remains an astonishing footballer

January 31, 2020January 6th, 2022

IT can sometimes be obscured by the circus that surrounds him, but when Neymar is on his game, there are few more thrilling sights in world sport. The Paris Saint-Germain forward has been in the form of his life in recent months and in Ligue 1 he has left a trail of devastation in his wake.

It started in September with three late winners in his first four appearances of the season: a show-stopping injury-time overhead kick at home to Strasbourg, a last-gasp solo goal at Lyon and a 70th-minute strike at Bordeaux.

Since returning from a hamstring injury at the end of November, he has moved up a gear, scoring 11 goals and providing nine assists in his last 10 games in all competitions. With his side trailing 1-0 at Montpellier in early December, he scored an inch-perfect free-kick to level the scores and then teed up Kylian Mbappé for a goal that set Paris on their way to a 3-1 success. He scored one goal and set up two more in a 4-0 win at Saint-Étienne, almost single-handedly prevented Thomas Tuchel's side from losing at home to Monaco with two goals in a 3-3 draw and had a hand in all three goals in a 3-0 win at Reims to secure a place in the final of the Coupe de la Ligue.

More than Mbappé, more than Mauro Icardi and more than Ángel Di María, Neymar is Les Parisiens'  go-to man in attack, the player to whom the rest of the team looks when they find themselves in a tight spot. He was decisive once again in last weekend’s 2-0 victory at Lille, opening the scoring with a magnificent curling effort from outside the box and sealing victory with a second-half penalty that he dedicated to the late Kobe Bryant.

“At times he was exceptional,” Tuchel said afterwards. “He’s been playing at this level for weeks and offering us matches of this calibre every three days.”

The game at Lille was Neymar’s 50th Ligue 1 appearance since his world-record €222 million move from Barcelona in the summer of 2017. He has scored 47 goals in that time, which is more than Zlatan Ibrahimović (43), Mbappé (39) or Edinson Cavani (24) managed in their first 50 games in Paris. In fact, no player has been so prolific in their first half-century of French top-flight matches since Swedish striker Gunnar Andersson (also 47) at Marseille in the early 1950s.

Crucially, Neymar is also playing with a smile on his face, which would have seemed unthinkable at the start of the season. Between a succession of serious injuries, a physical altercation with a Rennes fan after defeat in the Coupe de France final, a rape investigation (which was subsequently dropped) and his thwarted attempt to return to Barcelona, 2019 was the bleakest year of his career.

Prior to the beginning of the season, jilted Paris Saint-Germain fans angrily told him to “go home”, while Brazil great Rivelino proclaimed that the 27-year-old had “lost the thread of his career”. Not all supporters have forgotten about Neymar’s attempts to engineer a return to Camp Nou last summer, and not least when the saga is likely to start up again as soon as this season comes to an end, but for now, 2020 is shaping up to be a year of redemption.

Injuries ruined Neymar’s first two campaigns in Paris, but as his performances this season have served to demonstrate, when he has been fit, he has generally done the business.

“Unfortunately, I’ve had some injuries these last two years, including some very serious ones, which caused me to miss lots of games,” he said in September. “But each time I’ve been on the pitch, I’ve met expectations. In any case, I’ve certainly had the best statistics of my career here.”

He is not wrong. Having averaged 0.61 goals per game during his formative years at Santos and 0.56 during his four seasons at Barça, Neymar has scored goals at a phenomenal rate of 0.88 per match since pitching up at Parc des Princes. With 15 goals and nine assists in 17 games this season across all competitions, he currently registers a goal involvement roughly once every 60 minutes.

Recent weeks have also borne witness to an evolution in the defensive side of Neymar’s game, necessitated by Tuchel’s decision to adopt an ultra-attacking 4-4-2 system. The Brazil number 10 has been making a conspicuous effort to pull his weight out of possession and his endeavours have not gone unnoticed by his team-mates.

“He tackles? Yes, I saw it, f***!” Mbappé joked after the 6-1 demolition of Saint-Étienne in the Coupe de la Ligue. “It’s top. You talk about people taking on responsibility… When Neymar tackles, it’s an example for the rest of the team.”

In each of the last two years, it was during this period of winter – February 2018 and January 2019 – that Neymar suffered the foot injuries that would keep him out of action during the season’s climactic months. There is a flutter of anxiety every time he goes to ground at the moment and Tuchel has taken care to wrap him in cotton wool wherever possible, notably resting him for all three Coupe de France games. With the first leg of PSG's Champions League last 16 tie against Borussia Dortmund now less than three weeks away, nobody wants to take any unnecessary chances.

The image that defined Neymar’s first season was the sight of him lying on the turf in agony after fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his right foot during a match against Marseille. In his second season, it was the footage of him standing dumbstruck in his civvies on the touchline after Les Parisiens'   Champions League campaign had been sensationally brought to an end by Manchester United. If he can sustain his current level of form, the next few months could yield images that will be memorable for altogether more positive reasons.