Fast-forward to March 7, 2012 and the pair was at it again.
As Barcelona hosted Bayer Leverkusen for the second leg of its UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie, the reigning champion surged to a stunning victory. Messi was in imperious form, becoming the first player in Champions League history to score five goals in a single game as the Blaugrana crushed the opposition 7-1.
His performance oozed a supreme ability, confidence and class which Neymar would do his best to match once more. Shortly after the full-time whistle in Barcelona, the Peixe looked to get their Copa Libertadores campaign back on track against Internacional after suffering a shock defeat to The Strongest in their opening group game.
From the off, the virtuoso Neymar showed his hunger for the game. Operating primarily from the left and coming inside, the 20-year-old showed a fantastic level of intelligence to draw fouls and link the play between his teammates. A scintillating early run saw him fly past Nei down the right, creating an opportunity for Ibson to shoot, though his effort was closer to the corner flag.
Hat-trick hero | The sought-after striker raised his price tag with another fine display
For one so young, Neymar shows an innate ability to carry the pressure and responsibility that comes with being your side’s talisman. This trait was present early on when Santos was awarded a 19th minute penalty. Even his run up seemed to suggest that scoring was a foregone conclusion. It was. He left Muriel rooted to the spot in the middle of the goal.
But it was the second half where the 2011 FIFA Puskas Award winner would amaze spectators.
Nine minutes after the restart, Neymar picked the ball up in his own half before charging for the opposing goal. His feet seemed to scurry on the floor, darting in different directions yet he still glided forward, beating no less than four players on his way to poking the ball into the net.
|Neymar's feet seemed to scurry on the floor, darting in different directions yet he still glided forward, beating no less than four players on his way to poking the ball into the net|
With 64 minutes played, fellow prospect Leandro Damiao pulled one back for the visitors but Neymar would immediately regain the limelight. Combined with his second strike, his hat trick goal was reminiscent of Ryan Giggs’ extra time FA Cup semifinal winner against Arsenal in 1999. Picking the ball up in a similar position to that of his second, he charged at goal, untouchable, before clipping the ball past Muriel and into the roof of the net.
He could not go better than Messi’s five this time, but his goals were of enough quality to match the world’s best player. Following Ganso's lengthy injury sustained on international duty in September last year, Neymar learned to provide the side's creativity and invention. His collective play is now vastly underrated due to his exceptional goal scoring exploits, but it has made him a far more rounded player.
Brazil’s new golden boy has made himself one of the first names on the team sheet for Mano Menezes’ Brazil squad. It is a team in transition, searching for its identity ahead of the 2014 World Cup finals, but there is no doubt that Neymar will be the heart of that side. It will be the ultimate showdown. Argentina has the majestic Messi, but Brazil possess the nascent Neymar.
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