It was the word that kept cropping up as Neymar was unveiled as a Paris Saint-Germain player that summer afternoon in 2017 – Ambition.
‘PSG’s ambition attracted me to the club.’ ‘PSG are one of the most ambitious clubs in Europe.’ So on and so forth.
And, let’s be plain, ambition in European club football means winning the Champions League. And then winning it again and again.
PSG paid a world record £200million to sign Neymar in 2017 in the belief he would help them finally win the Champions League prize they’ve craved for a decade or more
But Neymar’s Champions League tale in the past couple of seasons has been a miserable one
It’s been the French club’s Holy Grail for the best part of a decade now, ever since their Qatari takeover in 2011. Yet still that European crown eludes them.
They smashed the world transfer record to bring Neymar from Barcelona to the Parc des Princes, paying £200million, with the idea being that the Brazilian would inspire them to win it.
Signing him was one hell of a statement, saying that PSG are now on the same plane as Barcelona and Real Madrid in European football. It clearly doesn’t work like that. Two full seasons with Neymar in their team have returned two last-16 exits for PSG. This time, they desperately need it to be third time lucky.
At least they’ve overcome that last-16 curse this year, overcoming Borussia Dortmund 3-2 on aggregate before Covid-19 temporarily brought down the shutters on the European season.
Next up are the free-scoring Italians, Atalanta, a team with so much less to lose, in a Lisbon quarter-final on Wednesday evening.
Neymar celebrates scoring for PSG in the first leg of their last-16 tie against Dortmund
The Brazilian was on target again in the return leg as PSG reached the quarter-finals
Neymar has himself been cursed by injury in those previous last-16 exits – to Real Madrid in 2018 and Manchester United in 2019 – but this time he is fit, in form and feeling the burden of responsibility.
With his strike partner Kylian Mbappe potentially only fit enough to start on the bench following an ankle injury and Angel Di Maria suspended for the game, Neymar must stand up and be counted as the focal point of the attack.
Neymar is 28 now. When he won the Champions League with Barcelona in 2015, it appeared he would be every bit as generational as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But they have left him behind.
Ronaldo has won the Champions League five times, Messi four. And for all Neymar’s vast collection of domestic medals in France, the main purpose for which PSG signed him has still to be achieved.
In terms of legacy as a truly great player, Neymar is in danger of becoming lost. PSG certainly have the ‘ambition’ but it remains just that.
Neymar will be more important than ever against Atalanta with Kylian Mbappe lacking fitness
Neymar and the PSG squad are in Lisbon for a Covid-secure finale to the Champions League
Now that Covid-19 has severely impacted the finances of every elite European club, Neymar’s hopes of returning to Barcelona in the next year or two have been dashed.
His courtship with a return to the Nou Camp made him a hated figure with the PSG ultras at the beginning of the season.
Banners telling him in no uncertain words to pack his bags and leave appeared at their matches.
But as the season has progressed, Neymar seems to have reconciled himself with the fact that life in Paris isn’t so bad after all.
He’s scored 19 goals and contributed 10 assists, a great return for a league season that was cancelled back in April with 10 rounds of fixtures remaining. Also very impressive considering he has missed 22 matches because of either injury or suspension.
Injuries have blighted Neymar during the knockout stages of recent Champions Leagues
The Parisian fans are desperate to see their team’s name on the famous trophy for the first time
Neymar in 2019-20
Matches: 24 Minutes: 2,116
(13 Ligue 1; 3 Champions League; 2 French Cup; 1 French League Cup)
(6 Ligue 1; 2 Champions League; 2 French League Cup)
He scored in both legs of their win over Dortmund in the last round, helping erase the last-16 misery that has very much been a black mark during his time with PSG.
In 2018, PSG went to the Bernabeu and lost 3-1 in the first leg with Neymar struggling to make much of an impact.
Then just before the return leg, he fractured his metatarsal in a league match against Marseille and was sidelined for the remainder of the season, returning just in time for the World Cup in Russia.
In his absence, PSG lost 2-1 at home to Real, who went on to win the competition for the third consecutive season as if to reinforce their status as a cut above.
2019 was even worse. Neymar suffered a foot injury in late January and played no part in both legs of their last-16 tie with United.
But it didn’t appear to be a problem, especially after a Di Maria-inspired performance at Old Trafford saw PSG win the first leg 2-0.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored as Real Madrid put paid to PSG’s European hopes back in 2018
An injured Neymar was forced to watch from the stands as PSG lost to Man United last season
Yet Neymar was forced to watch helpless from the stands as United produced one of the most sensational European comebacks, winning the return 3-1 thanks to a stoppage time Marcus Rashford penalty.
Enraged by the VAR decision for the penalty which saw Presnel Kimpembe penalised for handball following a strike from Diogo Dalot, Neymar took to Instagram to express his rage.
He wrote: ‘This is shameful! And they still let four guys that do not understand football look at the slow motion video, this doesn’t happen!
‘How is he going to take his hand out when he’s on his back? Oh go f*** yourself!’
UEFA banned Neymar for three matches after a furious reaction to the handball that saw Paris Saint-Germain eliminated and Manchester United go through in the 2019 round of 16
A handball was given against Presnel Kimpembe after Diogo Dalot’s effort struck his arm and Marcus Rashford scored the penalty to send United through on away goals
The Brazilian used Instagram to aim an expletive and insults at video review officials
UEFA wasn’t impressed and handed Neymar a three-match suspension. It was a moment of rage and petulance that seemed to sum up the player’s decline.
This time it has to be different. The re-formatted Champions League finals mean PSG are just three wins away from the glory they seek.
They’re on the favourable side of the draw as well. Overcoming free-scoring Atalanta will bring about a semi-final tie with either Atletico Madrid or RB Leipzig.
Only in the final would PSG face the challenge of Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Lyon. And over the course of just 90 minutes as opposed to 180, they should stand a greater chance.
PSG fans were furious at Neymar at the start of the season after his efforts to leave the club
Neymar has enjoyed another excellent season of 19 goals to put the dissent behind him
Of all the players heading into the Champions League’s Lisbon bubble this week, Neymar is the star name who undoubtedly has the most to lose – but also the most to gain – in terms of legacy.
He moved to Paris to be out of the shadow of Messi. But when it comes to the Champions League, things haven’t exactly gone to plan for the world’s most expensive player.
But guide PSG to glory from here and it’ll all suddenly be worth it.