When Paris Saint-Germain bought Neymar for a world-record shattering €222 million from Barcelona, they did so for occasions such as Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final.
Atalanta may not provide the most storied opposition in the final eight of Europe’s premier event, but the Serie A outfit have earned their place in Lisbon thanks to a thrilling brand of football that saw them recover from losing their first three matches in the competition to qualify alongside Manchester City from Group C before dispatching Valencia in spectacular style 8-4 on aggregate in the spring.
Despite the exploits of Gian Piero Gasperini’s side, PSG would habitually go into such an encounter as red-hot favourites.
Five months of inactivity, however, count against the Ligue 1 champions, who would surely have preferred a two-legged tie against a dangerous opponent.
But it is really team selection where head coach Thomas Tuchel has his worries. Offensively, he will be bereft of Angel Di Maria, who was arguably his side’s most consistent performer during the 2019-20 season, while tone-setting midfielder Marco Verratti is out and Kylian Mbappe is unlikely to play a key role. The France star will be fearful of suffering the fate of Paolo Dybala, who hurried back from injury for Juventus in their ill-fated encounter with Lyon only to limp out minutes later as his side surprisingly exited before even reaching Lisbon.
When PSG walk out of the tunnel at Estadio da Luz, Neymar will bear his side’s weight of expectation. For the man who left Barcelona in order to escape Lionel Messi’s shadow only to find himself sharing the spotlight with Mbappe at Parc des Princes, this will finally be his opportunity to be in sole possession of the headline spot.
The 28-year-old, who has been thus far robbed of playing in a Champions League quarter-final for the French club due to injury, is in the midst of a dramatic U-turn in his PSG career.
A year ago, he was agitating for a move back to Barcelona, but now he is as settled as ever in Paris, fresh off the back of a season that saw him notch 13 Ligue 1 goals and six further assists in just 15 appearances.
His participation in the Champions League, meanwhile, has been somewhat curtailed by a suspension lingering from an outburst following last term’s painful loss to Manchester United, but he has still managed three strikes in four outings, including two of the three Tuchel’s men registered as they fought back to progress against Borussia Dortmund in the last 16.
Now more than ever, he appears to be committing his heart and soul towards the Parisian cause, offering regular Instagram updates of his gruelling training regime during the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, where in the past he has caused rifts in the PSG dressing room, alongside Keylor Navas and Marquinhos, he has become a rallying point for the squad, taking on extra responsibilities of a leader, including offering advice and confidence to the more inexperienced players.
This sense of team spirit and unity was encapsulated by a video that appeared on social media over the weekend, when Neymar celebrated in delight after Ander Herrera drilled home an unlikely left-footed shot in training. Finally, this PSG team is all pulling in the same direction, with Neymar leading the way.
Once considered to be a player who, even at an age when he would be expected to be hitting his peak, was widely seen to be immature, the coronavirus suspension imposed upon football appears to have forced Neymar to focus on his play.
Lockdown has provided a silver lining to Neymar and PSG. Gone are his late nights partying in Paris and the media attention that comes with it, replaced instead with a full commitment to lead his side to previously unattained heights.
"The aim is to be ready for when they signal the return of club activities, so I can be in the best possible condition," said Neymar in May.
“I'm here, training hard, with the same rhythm and frequency that I would with the club. Training even harder actually, with more activities to compensate for the lack of games.
“Of course I miss the competition, but [fitness coach] Ricardo Rosa set up a programme that I have been following to the letter.”
Neymar’s long-term goal of being a Ballon d’Or winner must be put on hold for at least 12 months due to the cancellation of the award due to the coronavirus crisis, but the coming fortnight in Portugal nevertheless offers him the chance to re-enter the conversation of who is the best player in the game.
For both club and player, the stakes have never been higher than they will be against Atalanta: it is time for Neymar to justify his price tag.