The Brazilian is adapting well to life at Camp Nou, but gone are the spectacular strikes and dazzling dribbles as he strives to play along with the Catalans' passing philosophy
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Here to help Messi. That was the message from Neymar as the Brazilian was unveiled by the Catalan club ahead of the Confederations Cup in June. And five games into his Camp Nou career, the 21-year-old has remained true to his word. Unfortunately, however, he has looked less like the shining star seen with Brazil and Santos, and more like yet another forward playing second fiddle to the world's finest footballer.
Neymar made a slow start to life in Barcelona, eased in intelligently by coach Gerardo Martino after a hectic summer in which he had his tonsils removed, lost seven kilos in weight and was also suffering from anaemia.
Signed to complement Messi and one day succeed the Argentine, Neymar began on the bench as Barca thrashed Levante 7-0, but emerged from the sidelines to net his first Blaugrana goal in the Spanish Supercopa first leg at Atletico Madrid as he headed home a Dani Alves cross for 1-1.
That goal earned Barca the trophy in the end, but a goalless game in the return at Camp Nou brought little joy for the Brazilian or for Messi as the four-time Ballon d'Or winner failed to convert from the penalty spot. Their partnership had been unimaginative, the performance uninspiring.
Last Sunday's trip to Mestalla was much more encouraging. Neymar raced through to convert early on, only to see the strike ruled out (incorrectly) for offside, while the Brazilian produced some excellent link-up play which included a clever cut inside and pass for Messi to make it 2-0. Barca then went 3-0 up (the Argentine scored them all) and held on as Valencia closed the gap to a single strike. It finished 3-2 to the Catalans, but it had been all about Messi. Not Neymar.
"Messi is a mirror for me; I am learning from him," the Brazilian claimed this week. However, he is unlikely to be allowed as much freedom as the Argentine any time soon. As Alves summed up in the summer, "Neymar can't come here to be the protagonist - because we already have one."
That showed in Valencia. Neymar produced plenty of skill, neat control, cutbacks, intelligent running and passing. But he always looked to seek out Messi. It was a performance packed with quality, yet missing the magic from the Confederations Cup, when the brilliant Brazilian hit several sensational strikes from distance. Or the wonder of his time at Santos, when he dazzled with his dribbling from deep positions. Barca's philosophy is a different one, of course, all about passing and creating space for their main man: Messi.
Indeed, all of the forwards who have lined up alongside the Argentine have had to work off the ball to drag markers and set up opportunities for the four-time Ballon d'Or winner. And it is a system which has upset several of them, starting with Samuel Eto'o back in the early days, the well-publicised problems with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and latterly a rocky relationship with David Villa.
Barca legend Johan Cruyff questioned the alliance. "Messi and Neymar?" he asked in he summer. "I wouldn't put two captains on the same ship." The Dutchman later - ridiculously - claimed Barca should consider selling Leo following the Brazilian's arrival, yet he was right about one thing: only one can be the boss.
Neymar knows it is not him and apparently accepts that, but it is somewhat sad from a neutral perspective that the Brazilian is toning down his natural game to find favour at the Catalan club. A spectacular signing he undoubtedly was and still remains, but the 21-year-old has so far been reduced to a supporting role, an almost submissive position playing second fiddle to Messi. One wonders how long he will put up with it.
So Martino must find a way to unleash the Brazilian's brilliant best while maintaining the balance of the team. "It is my job to get Messi and Neymar to gel," the coach admitted at his unveiling. And to his credit, that is already happening, but within the current system and with Messi the leader on the pitch, Barca fans may have to wait a long time to see the real Neymar emerge from behind the curtain and steal some of Leo's limelight.
Follow Ben Hayward on