Barcelona’s 6-1 rout of Celtic in Wednesday night’s Champions League game secured top spot in Group H for the Catalans — but more importantly showed that blaugrana attacker Neymar is in no way weighed down by the pressure of filling the boots of absent teammate Lionel Messi.
That had been in doubt. As the game reached halftime, with Barca cruising 1-0 up and Celtic offering little possibility of an equalizer, the main talk around the Camp Nou was of the $93 million summer signing’s apparent lack of confidence in front of goal.
Sure, the Brazilian had settled quickly at the Camp Nou, and was regularly providing assists for teammates to score, but he himself was finding it tricky to hit the net lately. With Messi currently sidelined through persistent thigh trouble, this was supposed to be Neymar’s time to step up and start scoring regularly. Instead he had gone backwards, with no goal for Barca since Nov. 10 at Real Betis, the very game Messi got injured in.
There had been three assists in the five games since then but still, some pundits were asking if the Brazilian was more comfortable in a supporting role. Barca coach Gerardo Martino found himself defending his player at his pre-match press conference, saying he was sure goals would come soon — although the Argentine did also remind reporters it was unrealistic for anyone to match Messi in front of goal.
Celtic boss Neil Lennon had also claimed that the former Santos starlet had great talent but was still “immature.” This was taken as code for "a diver," with some Celtic fans still sore about his reaction to some tough tackling from Celtic in their first group meeting, which saw Scott Brown deservedly sent off.
Another hard Brown tackle here left Neymar limping and clutching an ankle early. With Cesc Fabregas suspended, and Messi out, he was playing the false nine role in Barca’s system, but things were not quite coming off for him. One run took him past three defenders, but he had already lost control of the ball and the Celtic defense cleared. So the doubts continued, especially as the clock ticked past 450 minutes and 24 shots without a Champions League goal.
There would not be too long left to wait. The first inkling that this would be Neymar’s night came with another assist — his tenth of the season and perhaps his best, as he outwitted Virgil van Dijk with a duck of the shoulder, which gave him time to look up and provide a pin-point cut-back for Pedro Rodriguez to arrow in Barca’s second.
The dam was creaking and it was soon to break. A super move saw the ball zipped from blaugrana shirt to blaugrana shirt, before Alexis Sanchez freed Martin Montoya inside the area, and the right back unselfishly squared for Neymar to tap into the empty the net. The finish could not have been easier, but the celebration — clenched fist and serious grimace — told a story.
With the nervous energy released, Neymar could begin to enjoy himself. Just three minutes after halftime, he had his second of the night, and it was a beauty. First the back-flick to find teammate Xavi Hernandez, then the instant control to take the return pass and evade his marker with one touch, then a rising 15 yard shot on the stretch which found the net off Fraser Forster’s right hand post.
The 21-year-old was really in the mood now, and he soon had his third. First he beat Van Dijk with a typical wriggle of his hips, then calmly beat Forster with his finish. The hat trick was well deserved, even if Efe Ambrose might have done better when trying to stop the ball crossing the line.
Up in the Camp Nou press box, the storyline of the night had changed completely. Barca’s big summer signing might have gone almost seven and a half hours without scoring in the Champions League, but he had just bagged three in less than 15 minutes.
“He needed a couple of minutes to adapt from his position on the wing to the center," said Barca boss Martino after the match. "The goal gave him confidence and from there he showed his repertoire. I’m amazed at his level of commitment to the team, it’s strange in players that are as good as him.”
It could easily have been four too — with Pedro getting in his way when he had already rounded Forster and looked set to score into empty net, and Forster saving well with his feet after the unfortunate Van Dijk had been outfoxed yet again.
Martino put the Dutch defender and his teammates out of their misery by taking off the night’s star man with 10 minutes left. The Camp Nou crowd rose to their feet to acclaim the Brazilian, who accepted the applause with a broad smile.
”I don’t feel pressure but, still, I should score,” Neymar said.
Before the first goal he had been nervous, and fans and pundits were really starting to doubt, but since then it had all been pretty special.