Neymar meets the ‘devil’ again

Kevin de Bruyne made a memorable game the night the Red Devils eliminated Brazil from the World Cup, on July 6, 2018, in Kazan. For most fans the duel will be shelved as a side event in the great course of football events. For Neymar Júnior’s career, the defeat against Belgium (2-1) represented a descent into the underworld. After years building an image and a reputation by virtue of the expectation of the conquest of the World Cup and his presumable coronation as Messi’s successor, the ten The most famous Brazil has given since Pelé felt he no longer had horizons. His family came to worry about his health, so depressed that they saw him, and he himself slipped that he no longer wanted to continue playing football. “It’s hard to find the strength to go back,” he said.

Neymar returned. Slowly. He did not do anything relevant in 2019 but in 2020 he led PSG to the Champions League final. Now, at 29 years old, he seems convinced that the market cannot offer him a better place than Paris to close his cycle in this trade that has produced so much money, distractions and troubles. “I learned,” he declared last week, after acknowledging that he is negotiating the extension of his link with PSG.

With his existential crisis resolved, Neymar was going through his best moment since Al-Khelaifi hired him when fate returned him to the past. Again Kevin de Bruyne. This time in the semifinals of the Champions at the head of Manchester City, a team that reflects everything that characterizes De Bruyne. A way of leading, playing, and living, which is the antipode of everything that Neymar and his PSG mean. That both clubs are financed with petrodollars is only the starting point of two opposite realities.

De Bruyne explained it after the comeback in the Parc des Princes: from 1-0 to 1-2. “We started to play well because after 25 minutes we changed the way we press,” he said, referring to the 20-meter jump his team took to steal the ball. The defensive organization is one of the most pronounced differences between City and PSG. While the team led by Mauricio Pochettino is characterized – since the time of Tuchel – for waiting in the midfield and exploiting the counterattack, thus allowing the dosage of efforts of its idols Neymar and Mbappé, City is vivified working in the opposite field. There, in the axis of the pressure maneuvers, De Bruyne stands out, according to Opta, the Champions League player who steals the most balls in the last 40 meters of the field (five per game), compared to Neymar, who steals an average of three in this zone.

“We won the ball higher,” Guardiola said to argue the comeback. “That is a consequence of being more aggressive with the ball; that’s why attack and defense are the same thing. They cannot be separated. The more aggressive you play with the ball, the more aggressive you are without the ball ”.

In the first leg, City recovered 16 balls in the last 40 meters of the court. PSG did not exceed four. Nothing that does not confirm the existence of a plan that each one has been executing for months. Of all the teams that competed in the Champions League round of 16, the English team was the one that recovered the most balls in the last third of the pitch: a total of 139, eight on average per game. PSG was the one that defended further back, with an average of four robberies in rival field, only ahead of Lazio and Porto.

“With Neymar it’s very easy,” said Pochettino before the first leg. “I played with Ronaldinho. Brazilians need to feel happy to play well ”.

It is not proven that Neymar achieves happiness by pressing after loss but by inventing the unthinkable. All PSG coaches, from Emery to Pochettino, have sought to adapt the team to a genius whose creative potential promises to compensate for the tactical imbalance with wins. The question is: does it pay?

“They are an extraordinary team,” Guardiola warned this Monday; “With players capable of doing things for themselves that nobody expects and winning the games.”

Guardiola’s speech revealed concern about controlling everything, starting with the emotions of his players. “As a footballer, controlling your emotions means being aware that these matches are played out in a completely different way than you expect,” he warned; “You are not going to play 90 minutes well. There will be moments of suffering. The important thing is not to study PSG more. We already talked about them a week ago, and the players are very aware of what they experienced on the field; now we have to talk about us, us, us … Pochettino is very smart and knows how to alter the form of his teams. He will invent something we do not expect. It will surprise us. Therefore, we have to be calm and concentrate on what we must do … Nobody can control the chaos! ”.

Tonight at the Etihad two worlds face each other. On the one hand the method, the calculated order, the structure and the sacrifice of those who know they cannot but try to avoid chaos. On the other, the purest vestige of improvisation left to football. Neymar Júinior against the demon of science.

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