With the summer signing having already scored four goals and contributed a whopping seven assists in eleven matches since joining Barcelona, Neymar is to face his toughest test yet.
The weight of the soccer world will be thrust upon his 21-year-old shoulders, a load so heavy even the $76 million kid has plenty of doubters still.
Lionel Messi, the four-time reigning Ballon d’Or winner, is facing a long-term injury absence on the bench – possibly until the new year – leaving Neymar to fill the biggest boots the sport has to offer.
The Brazilian sensation has formed a wonderful strike trio up front between himself, Messi, and Alexi Sanchez. Six of Neymar’s seven assists this season have gone to either Messi or Sanchez.
But now, it will be up to Neymar to slide into Messi’s spot up front for a full six to eight weeks. His teammate and countryman Dani Alves says he was signed – nay, born – for situations exactly like the one he’s currently facing.
“Neymar is always ready,” said Alves. “He knows how important he is for Barcelona. He is aware that he was signed for things like this. With Messi’s injury, someone must take on this role, and Neymar is ready. For his name, and his qualities, he will be this player. I am sure he will give a positive response.”
Having played mostly on the left wing this year, Neymar will be given much less space up front in the middle by opposing defenses. No longer does the opposition have to accommodate for the world’s best player making slicing runs through their midfield and back line, affording space to the wingers in an attempt to patch up any weaknesses in the middle.
The Brazilian will rely heavily on teammates Cesc Fabregas, Andre Iniesta, and of course Sanchez to feed him the ball, but Neymar will need to create his own space rather than exploit that which has already given to him.
Taking the pressure off slightly is the fact that Messi’s injury couldn’t have come at a better time. With Barcelona already having qualified for the Champions League knockout phase and a soft patch in the La Liga schedule upcoming, Neymar will have opportunities to shine. But with that also comes the knowledge that any slip-ups afford naysayers even more reason to criticize.
With the international break upon us, Neymar has time to sit on his new-found role. However, come November 23rd when Barcelona returns to action against La Liga foes Granada at the Camp Nou, all eyes will be on the 21-year-old, whether he likes it or not.
From the sound of it, he likes it.