COMMENT By Ignasi Oliva
After losing to Sevilla on Saturday, his only comfort is that he now has 10 days to hit the refresh button as the Catalan club wait for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi to recover from their injuries. Without those two, Barca lacked reference points as they tumbled at the Sanchez Pizjuan, although they did fight until the death in search of a late equaliser.
Luck wasn’t on their side, though, as they hit the woodwork three times, one of which was courtesy of a free-kick from Neymar, who is still struggling to hit the heights he managed last season.
The Brazilian missed out on pre-season because he was suffering from a bout of mumps. That spell on the sidelines ran into the start of the season, too, and he missed all three Super Cup games and the first game of the Liga season against Athletic Club at San Mames. Barca’s lack of efficiency in attack obliged Luis Enrique to bring Neymar back into the side against Malaga in the second game of the season, playing him for 87 minutes on the back of very little training. Since that point, Neymar has been the only Barcelona player who has not been rotated by Luis Enrique, starting every game in every competition.
It would be unfair to go overboard when criticising his statistics this season, they’re not disastrous, but his goals ratio has dropped. Last season he was averaging 0.76 goals per match; that is currently 0.5 in the current campaign. Meanwhile, his shot conversion rate has dropped from 27.9 per cent to 16.
However, in the absence of Messi, the Barcelona fans are demanding more from the 23-year-old. It has be pointed out that he is still a long way from his best physical condition - missing pre-season was not ideal.
“This international break will be good for Neymar,” Luis Enrique said before the Sevilla defeat at the weekend.
Neymar still has two more games to run on his international suspension after being sent off at the Copa America in the summer. For that reason, after the Court of Arbitration rejected an appeal from the Brazilian Football Confederation, he has not travelled with his country for the games against Chile and Venezuela - Brazil’s first qualification games for the World Cup in Russia in 2018.
It means he can stay in Barcelona and take part in his own mini pre-season, with the objective to catapult him back to his best ahead of a difficult run of games in November and December, with Real Madrid, Valencia and Bayer Leverkusen all to come away from home. Then comes the Club World Cup in Japan.
The former Santos forward, therefore, will follow a very specific plan over the coming days which will include work at the club’s training ground and also at his own home. He has given orders to his personal chef to prepare a more balanced diet on the back of advice from the specialist nutritionists who work at Barcelona, similarly to how Messi tinkered with his eating habits after the World Cup last year.
This is Neymar’s third season in Spain and after the injury to Messi, Barca’s No.11 has been handed the chance to shine as their No.10. If he can manage that, Luis Enrique may be able to break into a smile once again.