Neymar, Barcelona must move on from substitution controversy
Neymar has grown enormously in his second season at Barcelona. After a first year full of off-the-field drama due to presumed irregularities in the negotiations that brought him to the Camp Nou, the Brazilian is becoming the player everyone was expecting.
Neymar has already managed to score a remarkable 27 goals in 38 appearances for the Catalans this season, a vast improvement on the 15 in 41 in his first 12 months after leaving his beloved Santos.
While Cules are delighted his stats have obviously improved, the main difference is Neymar has become a more complete player since Luis Enrique took charge of the blaugrana in the summer.
- Moreno: Ramos would choose Barca before Man United
- Neymar out of Copa as Brazil drop appeal
- Laporta would scrap Qatar sponsorship deal
- Abidal lined up for Camp Nou return
- Tomas: Rakitic embraced his role and thrived
- Benedito: Barca won't pay €80 million for Pogba
- Spanish court to hear Neymar investor
Although it did take the 23-year-old forward a considerable amount of time to fully understand, there are many signs that indicate he is now fully aware of how the Camp Nou dressing room actually works: Quadruple Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi is the reference player that pretty much everything revolves around. He is the centre of Barcelona's universe, and deservedly so.
With that in mind, Neymar made a conscious decision to adapt his game to suit the needs of not only Messi, but the rest of his teammates. In a club of Barca's calibre, the overall needs of the team are above those of individual players, meaning that those who are willing to sacrifice some of their individual spotlight are far more likely to eventually succeed.
Once he understood the best way to help his team was to work alongside Messi, the young Brazilian began to make a significant positive difference.
Neymar became a much more incisive, confident player during the first third of the current season. The more fluid relationship with Messi on a personal level off the field had a direct reflection in matches, with the pair frequently combining with ease and terrorising rival defences as a result. La Pulga's positioning as a false nine helped him get Neymar involved in pretty much every Barcelona attacking transition, making their combination little short of unstoppable.
The arrival of Luis Suarez in late October meant Messi had yet another highly capable attacking partner to combine with.
An imminent change was definitely in the cards. Given the Uruguayan's status as European Golden Boot winner, it was obvious Luis Enrique was going to tweak his formation to try to accommodate his long-awaited, 81 million-euro newcomer in his preferred position as a striker.
From that point on, Barcelona became a much more dangerous opponent to defend against due to their increased attacking fluidity and the obvious fact that there was one more world-class forward to mark at any given time. The more direct, less speculative approach Luis Enrique was beginning to implement in midfield helped create a higher number of favourable situations for their impressive attacking trident.
Barcelona have won 20 out of 22 matches since early January. And it is definitely thanks to the consistently impressive performances by the team's front three. Having said that, it is also clear Neymar's influence has progressively decreased in recent months.
Despite having been granted 3,017 minutes of playing time and 34 starts so far this season, the Brazilian youngster has in fact been substituted on 14 occasions. Despite being eligible for selection only since late October, Luis Suarez has played 2,726 minutes and started 30 matches already, finishing 20 of them. And, in case you were wondering, Messi has played 4,034 minutes, started 43 matches and been substituted only once.
Before Saturday's game in Sevilla, Neymar had gone through a disappointing spell of form that resulted in the him managing to net only one goal in nine matches. The rest Luis Enrique granted him in Barca's previous game, in midweek against Almeria, was interpreted as a wake-up call by some and a mere opportunity for both physical and mental rest by most.
Either way, it worked. Neymar started the game against Los Hispalenses on fire, eager to prove his worth from the initial whistle. His performance was an obvious improvement of his previous displays, with the No. 11 constantly dribbling his markers and returning to the dynamic player he was earlier in the season. He went on to assist Messi to open the score line, then convert his first free kick for the Catalans shortly after.
In what was definitely a controversial decision, Luis Enrique decided to substitute Neymar once again with a massive 20 minutes to go, totally ignoring the fact that the Brazilian had been excellent until that point and that Suarez was having his worst game of the season in front of goal. To make matters even worse, Barcelona ended up with a disappointing 2-2 away draw despite leading 2-0 after just 31 minutes.
Sure, Neymar did overreact when he was substituted. Luis Enrique was obviously wrong to pull him away from the game. However, he should have been professional enough to understand that the decision was not a personal attack, only an attempt to secure a victory that never came.
However, and while such behaviour can't be condoned, there will be many Cules out there who can sympathise with his feelings. Having said that, there is no need to make a big deal out of the situation.
On that point, kudos to Neymar for not adding more fuel to the fire and refusing to discuss the matter in front of the eager Madrid-based media, even after Luis Enrique dismissed the episode as "nonsense he isn't interested in" -- an unfortunate comment the manager should have kept behind closed doors.
Barcelona are ahead of a golden chance to achieve a historical treble. Let's hope coaches and players can put the interests of the team first and move forward as the robust unit Cules deserve and expect.
Whether Neymar's angry gestures were justified or not, it is now time to move on and focus every effort on the next match: the Champions League clash against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.