Neymar arrived at the Estadio da Luz ahead of Sunday night’s Champions League final ready to make a statement.
The world’s most expensive player, signed for £198million in 2017, strolled into the Lisbon arena in a slick black suit with a large Bose speaker in hand. By the end of the night, the message blaring across the football sphere would be loud and clear: I have achieved the task I was brought here to do.
The Brazilian had already won European football’s elite competition five years ago with Barcelona, and he played a key role in the attacking triumvirate involving himself, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
But Sunday’s final against Bayern Munich would be the chance to show the world that he could take on the lead role and deliver the most coveted prize in club football, and finally step out of the shadow of Messi.
It was the perfect stage and the perfect opportunity for Neymar to elevate himself into the top bracket with Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Brazilian and Paris Saint-Germain agonisingly fell at the final hurdle.
The French giants had ample chances to clinch their first ever Champions League title, with Kylian Mbappe spurning a number of gilt-edged opportunities to put the Ligue 1 champions ahead.
And when you waste your chances in knockout football, expect to be made to pay.
Bayern Munich weathered the storm and snatched the all-important winner as Kingsley Coman powered an emphatic header past Keylor Navas to break PSG hearts.
Even his fiercest critics would concede that Neymar is a player that cares deeply and wears his heart on his sleeve.
Images of the £198m man sat inconsolable on the bench in the aftermath of the Champions League final, head in hands and tears rushing down his cheeks, was a poignant moment for a superstar running out of time to make his mark.
There is no doubt that Neymar is one of the world’s best on ability alone.
Posting 245 goals in 405 career outings, with 153 assists to boot, are outstanding figures and he has regularly been lauded as a player capable of reaching the superhuman efforts of Ronaldo and Messi.
Before Sunday’s final, former Barca star Deco insisted Neymar is already at that level.
‘Neymar is different – he’s on Messi and Ronaldo’s level,’ he told Goal. ‘He’s different, he plays beautiful football.’
But it is major silverware, not goals and assists, that will put Neymar at the summit of world football. Granted, this year’s Ballon d’Or has been cancelled, but by the age of 28, Messi had already won five of them while Ronaldo had two to his name. Neymar has none.
At 28 years of age, Neymar must move fast to ensure he lifts the coveted individual award. PSG are perennial winners of domestic silverware, regularly sweeping the top prizes French football has to offer.
However, those winners’ medals are not enough to see Neymar eclipse Messi and Ronaldo, and it’s the winning of the top European prize that is imperative if the Brazilian wants to bypass his two rivals, which makes Sunday’s gut-wrenching defeat all the more heartbreaking for the world’s most expensive player.
So does Neymar stick or twist?
It’s difficult to envision any club spending the sort of money expected to prise the attacker from Thomas Tuchel’s side, even more so given the financial ramifications of the coronavirus crisis.
Previous transfer windows have seen the Brazilian linked with a return to Catalonia, with Messi reportedly strongly in favour of reuniting with his former team-mate. Barcelona’s failure to resign Neymar last summer is said to be one of many bones of contention the Argentine has with the club’s hierarchy.
Surely a move back to the Nou Camp would be an admission of defeat in Neymar’s pursuit to step out of Messi’s shadow, though. You get the sense that Neymar’s hunger to be the lead star is stronger now than it has ever been before, given how close he came to European glory in Lisbon.
Neymar can also take inspiration from Sunday night’s victors, Bayern Munich, who bounced back after falling at the final hurdle in 2012 to win the competition in 2013. So too did Liverpool, who lost to Real Madrid in 2018 before responding by lifting the trophy last season.
His strike partner, Mbappe, has been touted as the next to pick up the baton and will be equally disappointed with his missed opportunity in Lisbon. But at 21 years of age the Frenchman is not as pressed for time as his Brazilian team-mate.
For Neymar, it may soon become a case of make-or-break with time running out for the superstar to fulfil his promise and join Messi and Ronaldo in that top bracket.