Neymar and PSG: A sensational union born of Barcelona arrogance
On Tuesday, it will be five months to the day since Neymar played, in his own words, his best ever game of football.
On an unforgettable night at Camp Nou, he scored twice in the final two minutes and then, deep into stoppage time, provided a stunning assist to Sergi Roberto as Barcelona beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in the greatest comeback in Champions League history.
Amid the visitors' dejection and Lionel Messi's euphoric leap into the stands, the match highlighted two important problems: PSG were still well short of becoming champions of Europe, and Neymar could no longer be contained within Messi's mighty shadow.
The solution was staring them both in the face. It's been staring at Barcelona, too, for months. That they ignored what was happening is ineptitude of the highest order.
Neymar's world-record EUR222million move to PSG was finalised on Thursday but has been evolving since last October. It was reported then that, having grown frustrated at only snaring domestic trophies, PSG had identified Neymar as key to their plans for European domination. The player's entourage suggested he was tempted, desperate for a chance to claim a Ballon d'Or of his own after years as MSN's third wheel.
Barca responded by tying Neymar to a new contract, complete with an increasing buy-out clause, but the charm offensive ended as soon as the ink had dried. They spent the next nine months convincing Messi to follow suit, indulging in all manner of platitudes to keep the world's finest player happy while assuming the man best placed to succeed him would keep calm and carry on.
Barca's conduct told Neymar everything he needed to know about their short and long-term priorities. Even in July, they were deaf to talk of his departure. Vice-president Jordi Mestre claimed he was "200 per cent sure" that he would not go, while technical secretary Robert Fernandez stated categorically that nobody would be audacious enough to pay the clause. Gerard Pique even announced he had decided to stay in a "joke" that is fast becoming a favourite of Barca-shaming Twitter memes.
They were scoffing at these French upstarts and their delusions of grandeur until the moment the Neymars, senior and junior, walked into Camp Nou and told them they were off to the airport. It was a misplaced, conceited manifestation of 'Mes que un club', and not for the first time. It's left them with full pockets and a humiliating mess to sort.
1 - Neymar was the only player from the top five leagues with +20 goals (20) and assists (21) last season in all competitions. Fantastic. pic.twitter.com/9PndcsLv4x-- OptaJose (@OptaJose) August 2, 2017
Arrogance has plagued Barca's transfer plans. They assumed that Marco Verratti's interest in joining (how long ago that feels now) would be enough to force PSG to accept an offer. When they refused to negotiate, president Josep Bartomeu complained loudly that there was no release clause to take advantage of, his irony blinkers firmly in place.
It was the same with the reported pursuit of Hector Bellerin at Arsenal and the scrambled bids for Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho. Their top targets have proved beyond their reach as they stagger aimlessly around the buyer's market. A vote of no confidence against the directors, led by former presidential candidate Agusti Benedito, is likely to gain support, too. The wolves are at the boardroom door.
Ernesto Valverde, a rather safe choice as head coach, has a mighty challenge on his hands.
Barca's squad needed a refit before the Neymar bandwagon trundled off towards the Parisian sunset. Messi and Luis Suarez are 30, Sergio Busquets 29, Andres Iniesta 33. The club's signings in the last three years have not been of sufficient quality to ease the burden on those leading lights. La Masia's production line has broken down and the pick of their young talent, like Jordi Mboula and Eric Garcia, have decided that their careers will be better served elsewhere. Even with Neymar funds at their disposal, they look a long way off hauling in Real Madrid, the kings of Spain and Europe and, for once, the more settled-looking dressing-room.
Not since Luis Figo in 2000 have Barca endured an exit so demoralising. Not since Ronaldinho swapped PSG for Camp Nou 14 years ago has a single deal heralded such a dynamic status shift for the teams concerned. PSG have obliterated both a world record and Barca's presumption of superiority in one fell bank transfer. The risk of Financial Fair Play wrath is, ironically, a price worth paying.
Neymar has the playing and pulling power to give PSG everything they crave: boundless commercial appeal, footballing prestige, and a big, shiny European cup. Barca must now get their act together in the final month of what has become a pivotal transfer window. If they fail, that 6-1 in March will be best remembered as the day when Neymar outgrew them.