LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Neymar is finally getting his big chance to shine.
He is getting the opportunity to prove he doesn’t need Lionel Messi to help him win soccer’s biggest club tournament.
He is getting the chance to demonstrate that Paris Saint-Germain was right to pick him to lead its quest for a European title.
He is getting the center stage to show he can be the best in the world.
Neymar is getting his shot at glory in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich on Sunday.
The most expensive player in the world is a match away from breaking through with a major title at PSG.
It was with the Champions League in mind that the French club and its Qatari owner paid a record 222 million euros (more than $260 million at the time) to sign the Brazilian star from Barcelona three years ago.
He failed in his first two attempts to conquer Europe with PSG, with injuries keeping him from playing in decisive moments. A bone injury in his right foot ended his season in 2018, and another foot injury the following season kept him from playing in the round of 16 series in which PSG was eliminated by Manchester United.
“On the ground with an injury in 2018. On the ground with an injury in 2019. On the ground being thankful in 2020,” he said in an Instagram post this week, along with photos of him injured in the last two seasons and then being grateful after Tuesday’s semifinal against Leipzig. “Two years in a row suffering an injury in crucial moments for me and for my team. Now I am fully fit, uninjured, and able to help my teammates in the best possible way. I’m incredibly happy. I’m very, very happy.”
Neymar set up one of the goals in the 3-0 win over Leipzig to put PSG in the final for the first time.
“We made history but we don’t want to stop here. We want more,” he said in his post. “We are going after the trophy.”
The 28-year-old Neymar already won a Champions League title in 2015, when he was Messi’s teammate at Barcelona as the Spanish club clinched its fifth European Cup crown. The Brazilian thrived in the tournament and was crucial in the final against Juventus, scoring one of the goals in a 3-1 win.
But that was Messi’s team, and it was the Argentine who eventually won the Ballon D’Or award that year, a prize Neymar has always said he wanted to win.
According to media reports, one of the reasons he left Barcelona was to move out of Messi’s shadow so he could take a leading role somewhere else. And it made sense to do it at PSG, the big-spending French club that had made it to the knockout round of the Champions League five straight times but couldn’t get past the quarterfinals.
Neymar struggled at first with PSG, getting into confrontations with teammates and failing to perform at his best. But he has thrived this season even though he got off to a slow start because of injuries sustained with Brazil’s national team. He also missed the start of the Champions League because of a suspension for insulting referees last season.
PSG coach Thomas Tuchel says Neymar has matured and is now a natural leader.
“He leads by his quality, by his confidence, by his courage to always take on opponents one-on-one,” Tuchel said. “He has a fighting spirit and is very competitive, he is always hungry for victories. These are traits of a leader.”
Neymar has proven before that he can perform well in a big game. He did in previous Champions Leagues and also with Brazil — he was nearly perfect under pressure while leading the hosts to their maiden gold medal in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Neymar has played well in the current mini-tournament in Lisbon but has yet to score. He also had some uncharacteristically bad misses that could have been costly for PSG.
The Brazilian forward may need to be perfect at Benfica’s Stadium of Light on Sunday to help his club defeat five-time champion Bayern.
If he pulls it off, he will finally have reached glory. He will finally have shown that he can be the best in the world.
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