By Daniel Edwards
When Penarol coach Diego Aguirre was asked what he considered to be the best way to stop Santos star and the Manya’s potential Libertadores nemesis Neymar before the first-leg in Montevideo, his response was fairly extreme.
“I was thinking about putting a sniper up in the Olimpica stand,” the trainer stated to interviewers, tongue firmly placed inside his cheek. Using his uniquely dry, morbid Rioplatense humour, he outlined the threat the teenage phenomenon posed to his side over 180 minutes of the biggest game in South American club football.
This writer had his own vantage point in the Olimpica for that evening, and while fireworks, flares and smoke bombs covered the Estadio Centenario from end to end, thankfully no hitman was in sight. Neymar was dealt with well by the tenacious Penarol back line and showed only glimpses of the talent that observers of South American football have been so electrified by in the last two years. He was furious after just 22 minutes when rightly shown a yellow card for a dive, and was whistled throughout by the home fans as he tried in vain to give Santos the advantage.
Aguirre, however, and all of the Carbonero squad for that matter, will be well aware that in the Pacaembu tonight, on home soil and with an encouraging 0-0 draw in the bag from the opener, he could well be a different prospect.
Atmospheric | The Penarol fans lit up the evening in the first-leg stalemate
The location is by no means inconsequential, as one worrying aspect of Neymar’s play so far is how susceptible he seems to his environment. Be it unsympathetic refereeing, uncompromising defending or 50,000 Uruguayans screaming for his head in unison - and the young striker had to face all of these last Wednesday in a pressure-cooker atmosphere - there is substantial evidence to suggest that when things are not going his way, he struggles to produce his best.
For the return leg, however, he will be back in front of his adoring home public, well and truly forgiven and embraced as a hero after the disciplinary troubles in the second half of 2010. Three of his five Libertadores goals have come in Brazil this year, and most of his most outstanding performances have been in the comfort of his own home, which should give the Manya pause for thought.
Another factor which could prove to be key is the return of Ganso to the No. 10 shirt and position, for the first time since the last 16 victory over America of Mexico. The 21-year-old has spent almost two months on the sideline with a knee injury, but is expected to come back into the starting line-up to partner the kid he calls his ‘Irmaozinho’ (little brother).
If not yet in the Copa, the pair have shown ample proof in Brazil that they share an almost telepathic understanding of each other’s play, and the extra creativity will also reduce the burden on the teenager’s shoulders, after essentially carrying a solid yet unspectacular Peixe team to the final with only Elano sharing the responsibility to create.
So what, then, must Penarol do to nullify the threat caused by this precocious talent? The simple answer is, more of what they showed in the first leg. Watching Neymar in the flesh, one appreciates that a huge if unappreciated aspect of his game is his movement off the ball. The youngster switched flanks at will, and drifted towards the sidelines to receive possession before cutting viciously inside, reminiscent of a young Robinho or, indeed, Lionel Messi before Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola moved him to a central role.
Shackled | Neymar tries in vain to escape the attention of Carlos Valdez in defence
This means the onus is on full backs Alejandro Gonzalez and veteran captain Dario Rodriguez to cut his space down, and limit any time he can enjoy on the ball in order to open up the game.
The 36-year-old Rodriguez certainly revelled in this role last time round, belying his years to effectively shut down the left hand channel and therefore one side of the Santos attack. The face of the defender betrays a career spent at the hard end of South American, European and international football, and Rodriguez was determined not to fall for any of Neymar’s tricks.
One of the most memorable moments in the first-leg came when the Brazilian fell rather theatrically under a challenge, and stayed down. Dario promptly scooped the little whizz-kid onto his feet by the shoulders, leaving the usually less than shy forward looking positively humbled by the defender almost double his age.
A sniper rifle may not be an option for the Uruguayans, but they have the tools at their disposal to stop Neymar and Ganso from running away with the Libertadores final. If the youngsters can hit top gear, though, and manage to display the full range of their startling ability, Rodriguez, goalkeeper Sebastian Sosa and the rest of the Carbonero team could be in for a very tough evening.