The force is strong with Neymar, but weary
The image was born in flippancy but still held an appealing nugget of truth. The pride of Santos, Neymar, mohican mussed under his helmet, peering out of the window of a busted X wing fighter at the imposing terrain of that footballing Death Star, the Corinthians defence. Unlike the movies, however, gauche youth was no match for muscle and nous in last Wednesday’s Libertadores semi-final.
The stage had been nicely set the week before, in a stormy first leg most notable for its off-field drama. Emerson Sheik, perhaps the first pet monkey owning, naturalised Qatari to play in the latter stages of the Libertadores, gave Corinthians a vital away victory with a terrific curling drive from the edge of the box. The same player was later sent off for a nasty scything tackle on Neymar, the Vila Belmiro lights went out for 18 minutes, and during some terrace kerfuffle a policeman’s helmet landed on the pitch. That floodlight failure gave Brazilian football’s conspiracy theorists, of which there are many, plenty of grist for their mills, though no one could decide if the lights had gone out when Corinthians were attacking (meaning the conspiracy was in favour of Santos) or when Santos had won the ball back (making Corinthians the beneficiaries). Endless TV replays proved inconclusive.
On the pitch it was a victory very much in the recent Corinthians style. Built around energetic volantes Ralf and Paulinho and the rugged centre back pairing of Chicão and Leandro Castan, plus the formidable form of big goalkeeper Cássio, Corinthians are more partial to 1-0 victories than were George Graham’s Arsenal. Neymar’s flame first sputtered, then gave out completely as signs of frustration, and a little of the old petulance, returned.
Last week’s second leg was more of the same. Santos had the better of the first half, even levelling the aggregate scores after you-know-who finished off a move he had started with a typical rakish dribble. But in the second half, as the Pacaembu crowd howled and the tension rose, Corinthians flexed their biceps, pressed tighter, ran harder, and Santos wilted. Crafty midfielder Danilo got the goal that put Timão into the final against Boca Juniors (the first leg is on Wednesday in Buenos Aires).
Both games revealed a couple of things about the young would-be Skywalker. The most obvious is that he is showing signs of tiredness. Brazil’s ludicrous football calendar means that there is no break between the sprawling and often archaic state championships that run from January to May, and the Brasileirão season that begins a few days later. Libertadores games (Santos had 12) have to be squeezed in at the same time, and Neymar is also expected to trot around the globe on international duty. He played straight through 2011, including in the Copa America in Argentina, and will soon be heading off to the Olympics.
It is a tough schedule for a young player, particularly one who, more often than not the centre of attention, is guaranteed a buffeting whenever he steps on the pitch. “He’s tired, not just physically, but also mentally. Everybody thinks he is a machine, but they shouldn’t,” his father, Neymar (senior) said recently.
Another is that, while much of the hype is justified, Neymar has a great deal to learn about playing against tough defences. His big game record does not make particularly edifying reading. He was stifled by a fairly ordinary Peñarol side in the first game of last year’s Libertadores final, before exploding into life in the second leg. He was anonymous for the Seleção in Argentina last year, and again recently against a canny Mexico side. In this year’s Libertadores quarter-final, he was largely nullified by Vélez Sarsfield’s impressive young right back, Gino Peruzzi. And in both legs of the semi-final he was well handled by Corinthians’ collective tenacity.
None of this is particularly surprising. Neymar is only 20, and it is hardly news that his top level experience is a little lacking. Nor should the player’s talent be doubted – a glance at just a few of those coruscating dribbles, or a study of his remarkable range of finishing (dinks, chips, flicks and insouciant toe pokes a speciality) will confirm his tremendous potential. But until Neymar makes a decisive difference against a genuinely strong, battle-hardened defence, the comparisons with Messi and Ronaldo so popular in the Brazilian media will continue to ring hollow.
With this in mind, his decision to remain in Brazil for the foreseeable future seems a curious one, as it is a difficult to see how much he can learn from scoring hat-tricks against XV de Piracicaba in the Campeonato Paulista. Criticism should not be too scathing – earning a fortune, recently a dad, happy basking in the adulation at Santos, and sensibly guided by his own father, it may be that Neymar is simply content where he is.
Meanwhile Corinthians go on to their own date with destiny in Buenos Aires, desperate to finally wipe the dust from the trophy cabinet shelf marked Libertadores (the club has never won South American football’s biggest prize). The games will bring together two of the biggest fan bases on the continent, and will have millions glued to their TV screens. Those seeking attacking fireworks, however, may be disappointed – the sides have conceded a combined total of 11 goals in 24 Libertadores matches this year.Tagged in: Brazil, Copa Libertadores, Corinthians, football, neymar
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