Haters gonna hate - but newly-mature Neymar deserves more respect

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Neymar PSG
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The PSG star is never going to be universally loved, but after improving his attitude, his prodigious talent at least deserves to be recognised widely

Virtually all of the 90 minutes had elapsed when  Paris Saint-Germain began their remarkable turnaround against Atalanta in the Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday.

The fixture had been popularly portrayed in the global media as a clash between the fairy-tale story of the Italian side from the town of Bergamo, ravaged by the coronavirus crisis earlier this season, and the evil of Qatari millions bankrolling the three-time Ligue 1 champions.

Neymar - the world's most expensive footballer - was cast as the pantomime villain.

With eye-watering wages and a lavish rock star lifestyle to go along with it, much of the planet was ready to celebrate Atalanta’s 1-0 success at the expense of the Brazil international, whose wild slashes when well placed in front of goal served only to delight his detractors and provide his critics the type of joy his many fans experience with every nutmeg or audacious piece of skill. 

If the 28-year-old’s finishing was more pub league than Champions League, his performance was otherwise worthy of the Ballon d’Or contender he has long considered himself to be. There was his usual circus of flicks, tricks and nutmegs, but for nearly an hour and a half his usual efficiency had frustratingly evaded him.

“I never thought of going home. From the warm-up to the end, we believed in it. We never gave up. No-one will take this desire to go to the final away from me,” he said after instigating the thrilling late comeback, the type of which supporters have grown spoiled by in the Champions League over the last 18 months.

The clock was ticking towards full-time when his pass across the six-yard box was turned in by Marquinhos, albeit via the unfortunate shin of a blue-and-black clad defender. 

Just 149 seconds later, PSG were celebrating again after Neymar combined with Kylian Mbappe, who set up unlikely hero Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting for the winning goal.

Neymar Kylian Mbappe GFX PSG

Had it been any other player, he would have been widely hailed for the mental fortitude and determination he showed throughout, particularly after handing his man-of-the-match award to the unheralded former Stoke City striker as the dust settled.

Neymar, though, does not inspire such love.

There is much about the South American to admire, but equally there are too many aspects to his game unpalatable to many fans.

His arrogance may be off-putting to many, but perhaps his biggest crime is to give the impression that he fails to maximise his talent in the manner of the very best. He is pictured at parties too often, but that have might been forgiven had he not left Barcelona for upstart PSG, where he is perceived to pick up easy money. 

While it would be too much to say that he has been on a charm offensive in recent months, there is little doubt that he is now a more circumspect character than he was when he arrived in Paris amid a tidal wave of hype following his €222 million (£200m/$263m) move in 2017.

The Champions League he hoped to deliver for the Parisians, and the subsequent Ballon d’Or he yearned for himself have not arrived, with injury denying him the opportunity to feature when his side most needed him in each of the last two years.

Now, though, he is making up for lost time.

If Covid-19 has curtailed his night-time activities – former right-back Thomas Meunier has spoken of the “outrageous” party culture at PSG – he put his time away from the game to good use, working hard in the gym and returning to the competitive environment in a fashion that suggests he has barely been away.

The flair remains, and so too does the burning desire to win, yet the attitude seems to have changed for the better.

The histrionics that used to arrive as standard each time he was fouled, winning him only a mob of angry detractors, have been dramatically reduced, while his willingness to play as a functioning member of the team as opposed to an attention-driven individual has been clear.

Perhaps he now appreciates that he still has much to prove. As a player approaching his peak, his trophy haul compared to the legendary figures of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo - a pair that Neymar aspires to the standards of - is poor. 

Neymar PSG

The 2015 Champions League is the only one he has to his name, and while he boasts and admirable collection of 12 league and cup trophies since moving to Europe from Santos, that is simply not sufficient to thrust him into the echelons of the all-time greats.

The Ballon d’Or he once seemed destined for appears as distant as ever, especially now it has been cancelled for 2020.

But if the ultimate glory has eluded him in France’s capital, his record remains a formidable one. In 83 appearances, he has scored 70 goals and created 40 more – an amazing record by anyone’s standards.

Of course, there will be those who decry his record as having ‘only’ been achieved in France, but in recent days both Juventus and Manchester City have found to their cost the calibre of Ligue 1 as they were sent spinning out of the Champions League by Lyon, a side that finished seventh in the division last term.

Indeed, while Neymar has scored on average every 97 minutes he has played in France’s top-flight, he has netted every 112 minutes in continental competition – hardly a startling difference.

Perhaps the greatest difference, though, in Neymar’s approach has been the way he has become a leader behind the scenes.

In the dressing room he, along with Keylor Navas and Marquinhos, is one the men most responsible for offering young players advice and encouragement. That is a side of the increasingly mature forward that his critics can easily ignore.

“We are a great group, we are a family, so we know that with this state of mind, it is impossible to eliminate us,” he declared after the Atalanta victory.

RB Leipzig will be the latest side to have a pop on Tuesday, and it promises to be another challenge that Neymar will rise to. After all, haters gonna hate. 

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