Barcelona vs Juventus Champions League final: Despite the tricks, Neymar grows up to succeed Lionel Messi

No one would bet against Brazilian stealing the show in Saturday's final

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The Independent Football

Great news for the beautiful game, and bad news for sensitive defenders – Neymar says the showboating must go on.

The Barcelona striker was at his best and worst last Saturday in the Spanish Cup final when, with five minutes left down in the corner of the Nou Camp, in front of a sea of red-and-white-clad Athletic Bilbao supporters still coming to terms with the fact that they were losing 3-1, he tried to flick the ball up over Unai Bustinza and run around him to collect it on the other side.

The outrageous piece of skill provoked the Athletic players, who cuffed Neymar around the back of the head as he sat on the turf, and then pursued him, fingers wagging, once he had got to his feet.

The condemnation continued afterwards, with full-back Andoni Iraola claiming it was anti-sporting behaviour. Neymar’s own coach, Luis Enrique, joined in the criticism, telling reporters that had he been the humiliated Bilbao defender he would have responded even more strongly. Neymar always produces a reaction.

What the incident overshadowed is that earlier the Brazilian had scored the second goal of the night – the one that ended the match as a contest. Just as easily forgotten is that it was his 38th strike of the season, an incredible tally for a 23-year-old in only his second season in Europe. Incredible at least outside of the context of these abnormal times, when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo score every time they take to the pitch.

“When Lionel Messi retires he will become the best player in the world,” says team-mate Xavi Hernandez of Neymar. “He has made the difference at 21, 22, 23 years of age and to do that at Barcelona is very difficult. He is going to have his own golden age, make no mistake about it.”

We may already be in the first hues of that particular period. Neymar has scored 53 goals in 91 games since his arrival two years ago. When he took to the pitch on 3 June 2013, Neymar mumbled a few pre-rehearsed words in Catalan, revelled in the customary ball-juggling with more confidence than anyone who has ever been through the obligatory performing seal ceremony, and then ambled out for photographs with the president in front of the huge Barcelona crest by the stadium gates dressed in three-quarter-length shorts and a club  leisure shirt.

He came with an entourage of lookalike fans and a reputation for enjoying life off the pitch. There were also alarm bells sounded – by Johan Cruyff, no less – that he would arrive as competition rather than company for Messi and the whole transfer would blow up in the club’s face.


Xavi sums up the way Neymar has dispelled all those concerns. “He’s been a very good influence in the dressing room and he’s a humble guy, despite that profile he has in Brazil.” Those close to the Barça squad say he is not quite the quiet family guy that Luis Suarez and Messi are, but he is extremely focused and professional when he needs to be. And he is a winner. “He’s not a frivolous kid; he’s the best player in Brazil, after all,” is the verdict.

Barcelona beat both Chelsea and Real Madrid to his signing in 2013. They have paid for the imaginative way they broke down the payments so as to – in the eyes of the Spanish public prosecutor – disguise his wages and not pay tax on them in Spain.

He has been making all that unwanted publicity worthwhile all season and tonight he can cap an incredible year by playing his part in the team completing the treble. Even with all eyes on Messi, and Suarez’s reunion with Patrice Evra to savour, no one would back against the showman stealing the show.