Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar’s time to shine among Europe’s elite
Stage is set for Brazilian to live up to his status as the world's most expensive player
Paris Saint-Germain have once again been hit by a flood of injuries going into a crunch Champions League knock-out tie, but this time Neymar is fit and seemingly ready to live up to his status as the world's most expensive player.
PSG face Atalanta in Lisbon tomorrow morning (Singapore time) in the first Champions League quarter-final, after Uefa turned the latter stages of Europe's elite club competition into something akin to a World Cup after the long coronavirus shutdown.
Tomorrow's game comes three years after Neymar made his debut for PSG, following that stunning, 222 million euro (S$358.6m) transfer from Barcelona.
However, his first two seasons in Paris were marred by injuries at the worst possible moments, with the Brazil international missing the French club's Champions League last-16 exits at the hands of Real Madrid in 2018 (he played in the first leg) and Manchester United a year later.
Aged 28, Neymar now finally seems settled in Paris and is in fine shape to lead his team against Atalanta, as they look to progress to the Champions League semi-finals for the first time since the Qatari takeover in 2011.
"I'm having my best time since I came to Paris," he said in an interview with the club's website last week.
And how PSG - in the week they celebrate the 50th anniversary of the club's founding - need him as coach Thomas Tuchel has all sorts of selection concerns elsewhere.
His other superstar forward, Kylian Mbappe, is expected to be on the bench at best as he battles to shake off an ankle injury suffered in last month's French Cup final against Saint-Etienne.
Angel di Maria is suspended, while the club's all-time record goal-scorer, Edinson Cavani, left at the end of June when his contract expired.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, midfield maestro Marco Verratti is out with a calf injury and reports claim the Italian would possibly not even be fit for the final should PSG make it.
To top it all, Tuchel is on crutches too, the German coach breaking his fifth metatarsal and spraining his left ankle during a workout.
But as long as Neymar is fit, PSG will remain hopeful of progressing to a semi-final next week against Atletico Madrid or RB Leipzig.
"We're a very strong team together, we've won four titles already this season and I'm very happy to be the Paris Saint-Germain coach," Tuchel told PSG TV this week.
"It's a gift for me."
Standing in Tuchel's way are tournament debutants Atalanta, who have become the surprise standard bearers for Italian football in Lisbon.
With Serie A champions Juventus and Napoli felled in the last 16, Atalanta carry the nation's hopes of a first major European trophy since Inter Milan's 2010 triumph.
However, they will have to do without top scorer Josip Ilicic, who found the net 21 times in all competitions, including five in the Champions League.
"We miss Ilicic very much," said Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini.
"It was his season. Until February, he was the most decisive player in our forward line." - AFP
Tomorrow, 3am (S'pore time):
- Atalanta v Paris Saint-Germain
- RB Leipzig v Atletico Madrid
- Barcelona v Bayern Munich
- Manchester City v Lyon