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Neymar raises the bar
Now, though, Messi was bent double on the edge of the Paris St Germain box, grasping his knees, as if heaving for breath. Five yards to his left, Neymar stood, hands on hips, awaiting the signal. Without argument, at the most crucial moment of Barcelona's season, Messi had quietly stepped aside.
A day later, there is still no definitive answer as to why Neymar took that kick, rather than the diminutive, dominant figure who has defined Barcelona's gilded decade. Most likely, it was an attempt to wrong-foot Kevin Trapp, PSG's goalkeeper. It was not impossible, though, that Messi, haunted by high-profile, high-pressure penalty failures in recent years, simply lost his nerve.
Whatever the cause, the consequence is clear. Neymar scored, his second goal in three minutes, after a fierce free kick. Camp Nou roared and PSG melted. Four minutes later, Neymar had the ball again, this time 30 yards out, feinting to shoot but instead drifting a delicate cross toward Sergi Roberto, and history.
"It is the best game I have ever played," Neymar said in the immediate aftermath of Barcelona's historic 6-1 victory. That, in truth, is probably not quite the right way to put it. Though he was the pick of Barcelona's attacking players, outshining Messi, Luis Suárez and Andres Iniesta, the Brazilian was not quite as smooth, as gracefully destructive, as he could be.
No, there are other, more fitting descriptions: In those seven minutes, when he single-handedly orchestrated the greatest comeback in the annals of the Champions League, Neymar was the most decisive he has ever been, the most influential, the most commanding. This may not have been his best game, but it may well have been his most significant.
Ever since he first emerged at Santos in his native Brazil, there have been twin narratives surrounding Neymar. One -- endorsed by Pele, no less -- is that he is Messi's heir apparent as the planet's outstanding footballer, the standard-bearer for the generation to come.
The other, less flattering, is that his reputation is the product of marketing buzz as much as it is the result of his brilliance. Few doubt that he is a player of rare, exquisite gifts, of course, but there has long been a suspicion that he generated much more heat than light.
It is not hard to see how such a logic took hold. When he was still a teenager, long before he had moved to Barcelona, Neymar had a team of 12 people working on his "brand," arranging endorsement deals, enticing sponsors, promoting what was always known as Project Neymar. In an interview as early as 2011, when asked to cite a player who had served as his inspiration, he picked not Robinho, the wayward Brazilian prodigy who was his childhood hero, but David Beckham, the archetype for the player whose public profile outstripped his sporting prowess.
Neymar had the tricks, of course, the sort of showstopping displays of technical ability that fire a million YouTube highlights; he had the outlandish dress sense and the celebrity lifestyle and the eye-catching haircuts and the slick PR machine rumbling behind him, all of the accoutrements of greatness.
But this was all style; where was the substance? Neymar was, in the words of one of his early coaches, a "butterfly fillet," all skin and bone; he lacked the size and the stamina to endure the harsh treatment meted out to the very best. He was a player for wondrous moments; he did not do what true greats did, taking games by the hand, bending and shaping them to his will.
That theory never really stood up to scrutiny. Throughout his career, Neymar has delivered under pressure. He did for Santos, all the way to the club's first Copa Libertadores triumph in 40 years, in 2011: He scored in the quarterfinal, the semifinal and in the second leg of the final itself, a boy with the iron nerve of a man.
He has done it for Brazil: Against Chile in the 2014 World Cup, when the eyes and dreams of an entire nation were upon him, he scored the decisive penalty kick that took the host to the quarterfinals; in the Olympics, two years later, he not only dragged Brazil to the final itself when the pressure on him was "inhuman," according to his national team coach, but he scored the penalty that won gold, too.
Neymar was never just a player of great moments; he was always a player for great moments, too. That he took a central role on Wednesday night, when Messi and Iniesta and Suárez seemed to have lost their mojo, did not represent his metamorphosis; it was simply the point at which an old lie was exposed.
He had the temerity to take that free kick, the coolness to convert the penalty, the assuredness that meant he not only clipped that ball into Roberto, but told him he was going to do it. He had, he revealed afterward, told the young midfielder that he would ignore the height of Gerard Pique and the predator's instincts of Suárez and look for him, and him alone, with that final pass.
The temptation, now, is to suggest that he has wrested the mantle of the world's best from Messi. It is one that is to be avoided. Messi is not yet 30; even a conservative estimate would have it that he has three or four years of something approaching his best left in him.
That Messi stepped aside for that penalty kick did not represent a changing of the guard; these things do not happen so swiftly, so immediately. It showed, instead, that Neymar will be ready when it comes.
Now that the dust has settled, it can be pointed out that Barcelona did not play especially well against PSG. It was not one of those mesmerising, irresistible performances Messi and his teammates produced with such stunning frequency when this team was in its pomp.
It was not a victory that showcased Barcelona's beauty or brilliance, but rather those qualities that have so often been overlooked because of them: resilience, character, courage. During the last decade, this team has not needed them often; it has been much too good to need to dig into that particular well. When they were required, though, they were there, and in fathomless quantities.
And in the middle of it all was Neymar, written off as nothing but show, proving to the world that he has the substance to go with the style. When Messi does stand aside for good, he will be there, ready to slot seamlessly into his shoes, the pressure rolling off his back, just as it has always done.