There has been plenty of debate among football pundits and fans about whether Neymar is a striker or a playmaker, and that debate intensified as the eyes of the world were on him this week. But his quest for European Championship glory would have nothing to do with creativity alone, and everything to do with an understanding and trust with his team-mates and a broad game he is developing. Neymar, you’ll recall, often says he is more of a specialist in front of goal rather than an in-and-out attacker. He is not so much a playmaker – or as his own self described a finisher – as a player who can conjure a goal or score the winning goal.
That lack of a compact understanding with the team is what has sometimes resulted in him being overexposed by Brazil during the home World Cup. In the knockout stages, it is a different Neymar, as well as a different team that the Europeans will be up against on Sunday.
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He is not so much a player with many overall skills as one who can have plenty of impact, in attack or defence, where he has found a preference for stooping or diving on the ground or the upper body and getting close to the ball. To do that, you have to have a strong understanding of your teammates’ roles on the pitch.
You’ll find some of the hardest years of his career in that underlings’ team. The Champions League final in 2013 saw him misfit in his position and the absence of the fear of the last minute penalty shoot-out has given him opportunities to practice diving in situations that will count more than most.
It’s not that diving is without logic, but certainly not intuitive. His stamping on the ball last week was a perfect example of how one moment of desperation that he has been able to find himself in places he had previously craved. He has made great use of the freedom and talent Portugal have provided him with to perform in his usual, adored dynamic.
Right now, he has the eye-to-eye co-ordination that he showed on one occasion in the Brazil-Croatia final this summer, when his diving header pawed off the defender and into the path of the Colombia cross for Paul Pogba to score and bring him level with the Frenchman for most Eurogold goals. That was his first goal of the tournament, although it was the first one he has scored in a European Championship since the 2008 qualifier in Colombia.
Neymar will be the key ingredient when Brazil face Portugal in Kiev
He has also reached the 22-goal barrier for Brazil in major tournaments and will be the key ingredient for Brazil to achieve their goal of finishing as runners-up.
Despite his awareness and awareness of his opponents’ roles, Neymar also has a flair for coming close to scoring that his opponents cannot curb. Just how important that skill has been to him this week will become clearer when he looks to cross the ball late into extra time on Sunday. What we also know is that Neymar’s sublime ability to spray passes out of defence has helped Brazil keep a clean sheet, something that normally would have been impossible to imagine just four days ago.
He has never doubted it but now the rest of his team have started to see what he is doing, the whole country is also watching – and counting on him doing all he can to deliver a winning goal on Sunday.