Spotlight on Neymar at Messi-less Barca
With Lionel Messi sidelined with a thigh strain, new signing Neymar will have another chance to steal the headlines from the World Player of the Year when Barcelona host Real Valladolid in La Liga on Saturday.
The Brazil forward shone in Messi’s absence in Barca’s 1-0 Champions League success at Celtic on Tuesday and the consensus is that he is already starting to justify the fee of€ 57 million the Spanish champions paid Santos in the close season to secure his services.
Concern the frail-looking 21-year-old would be unable to cope with the physicality of the European game appears unjustified and he has shown an impressive ability to take any punishment meted out by opposition defenders while demonstrating a faultless work rate.
He has also showcased his dazzling skills and although he has yet to hit the prolific goal-scoring form he has managed for his country he has set up five of Barca’s goals this term, four in La Liga and one in the Champions League.
Coach Gerardo Martino praised Neymar for his maturity after the Celtic crowd targeted him following the sending off of home captain Scott Brown on Tuesday.
Brown was shown a straight red card with around half an hour left after hauling Neymar down and then kicking him in the back when he was on the floor and thereafter the Brazilian’s every touch was greeted with a cacophony of boos and whistles.
Instead of allowing the provocation to affect his concentration, he responded by freeing Alexis Sanchez on the right with a superb pass and the Chilean crossed for Cesc Fabregas to head the only goal of the game.
Neymar twice came close to scoring himself but Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster pulled off a couple of stunning saves.
“He didn’t need today’s game for us to know the class that he is in,” Martino told a post-match news conference.
Saturday’s game against struggling Real Valladolid, who are 16th in the standings, could be the ideal opportunity for Neymar to add to his one La Liga goal this term.
Barca are seeking a perfect eighth win in eight games and top the table alongside Atletico Madrid, who also have a maximum 21 points and host Celta Vigo on Sunday.
Atletico are on a high after securing their first league win against bitter city rivals Real Madrid this century and they followed up on the 1-0 victory at the Bernabeu last weekend with a stirring 2-1 comeback win at Porto in the Champions League.
Coach Diego Simeone, who has transformed Atletico into a team capable of challenging the dominance of wealthy Real and Barca and a genuine contender in Europe, downplayed their recent success after the win in Portugal.
“It’s not physical, or tactical or emotional,” the Argentine, who was playing for Atletico the last time they won the La Liga title in 1996, told a news conference.
“Our work is just part of the daily routine and now we are hoping for an absolutely full stadium for the Celta game,” he added. “The right response is to continue to believe in what you are doing.”
Real, five points adrift in third, put the derby defeat behind them with a 4-0 thrashing of FC Copenhagen in the Champions League on Wednesday and play at Levante on Saturday.