One month after leading the most improbable of comebacks, Neymar has earned the scorn of Barcelona’s fans with a pair of senseless bookings.
He will get a chance to redeem himself tonight when he faces Juventus in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals.
Neymar was sent off after two unnecessary yellows with 25 minutes left as his team trailed by a goal at Malaga. Without him, the undermanned side lost 2-0 and squandered an opportunity to close in on Spanish league leaders Real Madrid, who were held to a 1-1 draw by Atletico Madrid.
Neymar’s infractions bordered on the absurd. The Brazilian was shown his first yellow card for bending over to tie his bootlaces and not giving space for a Malaga player to cleanly take a free-kick. Then, knowing he was one false step from dismissal, he charged into a Malaga player with no real chance to win the ball.
Neymar may have made matters worse by sarcastically applauding the assistant referee as he exited the field.
The sending-off meant he will be suspended for the next match against Real Sociedad, but his added dose of bad attitude could earn him an extended suspension.
The front page of Barcelona-based sports daily Sport on Sunday summed up the incredulity of Barcelona’s supporters by splashing the headline “UNFORGIVABLE” over a photo of Neymar being shown his well-deserved red card.
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique tried to deflect criticism of Neymar by pointing at the referee’s decisions.
“There were nasty tackles from behind that didn’t earn bookings, while other fouls committed by us were,” Luis Enrique said. “The rules are to be interpreted, but they should be the same for all.”
Excuses aside, what a month it has been for the Brazil striker. His two goals and last-gasp pass for the winner in the dying minutes of Barcelona’s historic 6-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain on 8 March earned him praise. The result sent Barcelona through 6-5 on aggregate, making them the first team to overturn a 4-0 first-leg loss in the competition.
Neymar’s performance, which he rightly called the “best of my career,” appeared to mark a watershed moment for the 25-year-old. Suddenly, he wasn’t just Lionel Messi’s flashy sidekick; he had willed Barcelona to victory as only a true leader can.
Now, with his reputation tarnished, Neymar heads to Turin for the first of two legs against a Juventus side he helped beat two years ago in the Champions League final to give Barcelona their fifth European Cup.
Europe has suited Neymar again this season. While Messi leads the Champions League with 11 goals, Neymar tops the competition with eight assists, to go along with four goals of his own.
Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta insisted on the need to regroup for the Juventus match.
“There isn’t long to go and mistakes are most costly as we reach the end,” Iniesta said. “Now we have to switch focus and concentrate on the Champions League, a competition that is very enticing. What we have to do is go there and play a great game.”
A great game without any tantrums from Messi’s heir apparent.
Meanwhile Juventus forward Paulo Dybala, pictured, has warned Barcelona that his side are in their best spell of the season. The Italian champions boast a six-point lead at the top of Serie A and last week reached the final of the Coppa Italia after beating Napoli 5-4 on aggregate.
Dybala told Spanish newspaper Marca: “I think we’re coming into the tie in the best manner. We’re better than them.
“We’re in the best moment of the season. That’s how I see it after knocking Napoli out of the cup and the league wins against Chievo and Sampdoria.
“I’m sure Barcelona will want a response to the defeat against Malaga. But that’s fine, at home we are a very strong team.”