For all of Neymar’s theatrics and ridiculed “rolling down the river” impressions, this was the sort of performance that made you realise something – this guy is actually really good.
Here, not only did Neymar create and take responsibility on the ball, he hustled and harried off it, tracking back and helping – yes, helping – in the elements of the game that he ideally doesn’t like to involve himself in, showing an opposite side to his flair that we didn’t think existed. He was kicked here and there, but that won’t matter to him – it’s all part of the Neymar Show, a world class mixture of the good and the bad that has him, no matter what people may think of his willy-nilly antics, close to the very top of the football pyramid. To suggest otherwise would be sinful.
Yes, he can be frustrating to watch sometimes when he becomes disconnected from the football, like a boy disobeying his father. Yet he also has a knack of leaving you wanting more and more – more nutmegs and faints; more bursts of pace and slaloming runs; just… more.
The Jordan-donning Parisien fashionistas, strutting their stuff on the Parc des Princes green carpet in what was a statement of intent against last year’s finalists, began as they mean to go on, a refreshingly dominant performance that shied away from the “inept” or “typical” PSG we’ve come to be accustomed to.
And there must’ve been something in the chilly Paris air that consumed the entirety of everyone associated with the Paris Saint-Germain brigade in their 2-1 win, because from the first whistle right down to the last, Neymar and PSG were up for this in ways that Liverpool simply couldn’t match.
Liverpool were red in the face, Virgil van Dijk wasn’t looking so world class anymore – that mantle fell to the hysterical Thiago Silva – and the midfield three were being taught a lesson by Marco Verratti – tenacious and driven, the sort of quality that sets the high tempo in games like this, all calm and controlled. He was the only recognisable central midfielder in the PSG team, yet he outclassed Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and James Milner for most of the game.
His driving run led to PSG’s opener in the 13th minute, scored by left back Juan Bernat with a swing of his right foot, a well deserved lead in an opening half full of attitude and desire.
Then came that devilish front three break in the 36th minute, a swift give and go between Kylian Mbappe and Neymar leading a Nike-sponsored counter attack, featuring Mbappe’s lightning stride and Neymar’s perfect weight of pass. Edinson Cavani missed the initial chance, but Neymar was there to save the day, his 31st Champions League goal, the highest for a Brazilian.
What may have also been impressive about this victory was that Cavani didn’t have to do much, if anything, before he was taken off in the 65th minute – such was the buccaneering attitude of Thomas Tuchel’s men, almost glued onto the idea that this was an opportunity to stand tall and be noticed.
Not to say that Cavani wasn’t involved – he was much more effective in his link-up play with Neymar and Mbappe compared to Liverpool’s ghost front three – but it showed how good PSG were as an overall unit, the whole more effective than just the sum of their parts. It was all so fun to watch, you’d forgotten about the recent nonsense about super leagues and dubious Middle East investment. There was even time for rainbow flicks in the corner, just the way Neymar likes it.
PS: although Neymar may hog the limelight, credit must fall onto Silva and Marquinhos’ shoulders for a defensive showing of great interest and motivation. They wanted to defend, their heart and soul encapsulated in every celebratory moment when Liverpool simply couldn’t get through. Magnifique.
Jurgen Klopp, however, wouldn’t have liked this one bit. It was a match that showed him where Henderson and Milner are when it comes to the best central midfielders in the world, and the ineffective abilities of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah should be a cause for concern for a team that isn’t in transition anymore, and were a side piece to the real show for much of the night.Gone are the days of lovely hugs and giddy relationships with the press: Klopp is under pressure to deliver. He would give away an arm and a leg and a Dejan Lovren for as fluid a trio as his German counterpart has. That home tie against Napoli was always going to be an important element of this group, but now the stakes are much higher.
And for all of Neymar’s frustrating roll-arounds and tumble downs from the World Cup et. al, this was a very good example of what PSG can do when the right notes are hit. Maybe Tuchel is the kick in the back side that he needed, the realisation that for him to bag those elusive individual accolades, Ballon d’or and all, he will have to give in to the team collective and make peace with his individuality.
Because with Tuchel, Neymar defends; Bernat scores; Silva and Marquinhos bump chests like Brazilian tag team wrestling champions. If Tuchel can produce this more often, then expect PSG to push their Champions League campaign further than they’ve ever done before.