Neymar turned up against Lille. Why can’t he be like this all the time?

Neymar turned up against Lille. Why can’t he be like this all the time?

The lights went out. Neymar, his father and Santos’ club president Luis Álvaro were plunged into darkness. A single chair in the corner remained illuminated. Pointing at it, Álvaro said: “This is the chair of the great national sports hero. Since Ayrton Senna’s death, this chair has been vacant. If Neymar Jr stays at Santos and refuses Chelsea’s proposal, he will take his first step toward sitting in this chair.” As Neymar explained in his autobiography, he refused Chelsea’s advances in 2010 and stayed with Santos for three more years before joining Barcelona. More than a decade on, is he any closer to matching Senna?

Senna’s significance in Brazil cannot be understated. The intensely passionate and spiritual F1 driver won the world championship in 1988, 1990 and 1991, and encouraged millions of ordinary Brazilians to dream. Neymar and Senna possess different personalities but their talents are similar. However, Neymar’s path to emulating Senna has meandered since Álvaro’s piece of boardroom drama.

His display in PSG’s 2-1 win over Lille on Friday underlined why. PSG struggled to create chances in the first half, with Kylian Mbappé out injured and Lionel Messi not entirely fit. Neymar was ineffective, languid and uninterested, losing possession twice as often as anyone else. Lille were 1-0 up at half-time, Jonathan David giving last year’s champions the lead.

The second half was different. With Messi removed as a precaution, Neymar’s body language shifted and he was immediately more focused, direct and innovative. Although Ángel Di María’s typical low-key excellence provided the moments that won the game – a dinked assist for Marquinhos’ equaliser and a skidding late winner – Neymar’s force of personality changed the tone of the game completely. His sharp movement off the ball, positive and progressive passing, and amped-up intensity instigated PSG’s comeback. Having been involved in the equaliser, he set up Di María’s winner with a deft lay-off.

It often feels as if Neymar wants to play with flair and flamboyance, but winning is only a fortunate by-product. Against Lille, however, his mindset shifted and he set about affecting the game in PSG’s favour. He delivered similarly irresistible performances against Metz and Lyon last month. Lyon’s young right-back Malo Gusto was targeted by the Brazilian after PSG fell behind, eventually conceding a questionable penalty as a ruthless Neymar dragged his team to another comeback win. After a ferocious Neymar display, Metz too were undone by his sumptuous pass for Achraf Hakimi to win the game in injury time.

However, despite reaching 50 goals for PSG one game faster than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar’s club record in 2021 is weak. In 28 games for PSG this year he has scored just nine goals, six of which were penalties. He has only scored once this season, the penalty against Lyon. His excellent performances against Lille, Lyon and Metz have been more than balanced out by his carefree, wildcard displays. He looked barely interested at the Vélodrome last week in a goalless draw, after drifting through the defeat at Rennes before the international break.

Neymar is not the only inconsistent elite footballer but, as one of the most gifted of his generation, his attitude is increasingly mystifying. Replicating the drive and commitment of Cristiano Ronaldo would be tough, but Neymar’s ceiling would be truly frightening if he had Ronaldo’s fierce professionalism. This idea is nothing new, of course. But, infuriatingly, the truth is Neymar can and does apply himself at the required level, but only fleetingly, often fluctuating between the grinning showman and the ruthless match winner, as he did against Lille.

His ability to switch between these two modes with such ease underlines his unwillingness to routinely apply himself. His lack of application is the overriding factor in many of his sub-par performances and, as a result, leaves a sense of missed opportunity when appraising his career as a whole.

“In 2013, Neymar quoted Senna on Instagram, saying: “Always show great strength and determination, and always do everything with much love … one day you will reach your goal.” Although a commendable message to his millions of followers, whether he has wholly followed Senna’s advice himself is open to debate.”

Maybe Neymar simply sees his goals as already achieved. He has been one of the best players in world football for a decade, carrying a relatively weak Brazil side for much of his career under immense pressure. He has won La Liga, the Champions League, Ligue 1, the Copa Libertadores and Olympic gold as well as nine domestic cups across three countries.

But, given his supreme talent, he has not reached the level he is capable of individually. Presented with the chance to leave a significant legacy, as it stands, Neymar will be remembered as just another supremely gifted and mightily successful player. Turning 30 next year, the window to reach that something more is closing fast.

In fairness, the expectations on him are colossal. Neymar may not be interested in attempting to emulate Senna’s genius and could point out he has never sought “Senna’s chair”, as Álvaro put it. Earlier this month, he admitted the strain the game takes on him. “I think the Qatar World Cup will be my last. I see it as my last because I don’t know if I have the strength of mind to deal with football any more.”

Perhaps the nasty back injury he suffered in the 2014 World Cup quarter-final changed his journey and mentality irreparably. But his apparent lack of willingness to wholeheartedly realise his highest level consistently is frustrating – especially when he occasionally shows such a level is very much obtainable.

Hugely popular in Brazil, Neymar has gone some way to replicating Senna as an inspiration. However, he is a long way from matching the fiercely passionate Senna’s impact on his sport. For now, Neymar remains a supremely skilful, often joyous, footballer, but he is yet to suggest he will take the chance that few are ever afforded – to become a true great. That chair in the corner remains empty. All Neymar has to do is decide to sit down.

Wahbi Khazri’s equaliser for Saint-Étienne against Metz on Saturday was the longest-range strike in Ligue 1 history. Picking up the ball inside his own penalty area after a Metz counter attack had broken down, Khazri strolled unchallenged toward the halfway line. Seeing Metz keeper Alexandre Oukidja off his line, Khazri unleashed a looping effort from well inside his own half. Incredibly, the shot bounced just once, on the goalline. Despite Khazri improving of late, Saint-Étienne remain bottom of the table without a win as Claude Puel continues to cling on to his job.

PSG’s comeback win on Friday night set the tone for another thrilling weekend of football in Ligue 1. Bordeaux found themselves two down to fellow strugglers Reims before they produced an uncharacteristically boisterous revival to win the game 3-2, with 36-year-old striker Jimmy Birand coming off the bench to score a brace. Nice, meanwhile, kept their slim title hopes alive thanks to a stirring second-half comeback at Angers. Their 2-1 win was inspired by Amine Gouiri’s drive and rounded off by a stunning Andy Delort volley. Just 12 points separate Reims in 17th and second-place Nice in Europe’s most competitive division.