“I love Messi, I admire him more every day,” Neymar said in May 2015.
The Brazilian regards his close friend and colleague as the undisputed best player in the world, and has spoken openly of his desire to “contribute to Messi staying the best for many years.”
Neymar knows that Lionel Messi is the top dog at Barcelona, and that’s something that isn’t likely to change any time soon, especially as the 29-year-old has bagged an incredible 39 goals in 38 games this season.
However, the 25-year-old former Santos forward is closing the gap on the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, and is gradually becoming just as important on the field to Luis Enrique’s Barça team as the brilliant Argentinian.
The historic 6-1 Champions League last-16 win over Paris Saint-Germain was evidence of Neymar’s growing influence and responsibility within the side.
After Edinson Cavani struck a 62nd-minute away goal for the French champions, Barça were left needed to score three times in the last half an hour to progress through to the quarter-finals for the 10th year in a row.
Of all the gifted individuals on the pitch that night, including Messi, it was Neymar who stepped up to the plate when his team needed inspiration. His 88th-minute free-kick gave the home side a glimour of hope, before he then scored a stoppage time penalty and assisted the tie-clinching sixth for Sergi Roberto.
More than just his goals and assists, though, it was Neymar’s grit, determination and refusal to accept defeat which dragged Barcelona back from the brink of elimination.
Against PSG he scored twice and registered an assist, but also made seven crosses, took six shots, completed four take-ons and created two chances. It was a complete performance which the No.11 himself admitted was the best of his career.
“It’s the best match I’ve ever played in my life,” the Brazil international said after the historic comeback.
Watching on in his role as an analyst for BT Sport, former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard was blown away by Neymar’s display against the Parisians.
“World class players have big moments at important times,” he said.
“[Luis] Suárez and Messi were almost quiet tonight. Neymar put in probably one of the best performances I've ever seen.”
Ex-Manchester United centre-back Rio Ferdinand was equally effusive in his praise of the Barça hero.
“He was the best player on the pitch,” the former England captain added. “He's the heir to the throne of [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Messi.”
“Neymar took responsibility and took hold of this game with eight minutes to go and said: ‘Listen, I'm going to do something special each time I get it to drag us back into this.’”
read more: the top five champions league comebacks
That work ethic has been present in his game for some time now, but this season has seen the Brazilian carry the fight to resolute opposition on a regular basis.
Purely analysing the most basic of his performance data doesn’t tell the whole story. In terms of scoring, with 14 goals for the current campaign so far, Neymar is unlikely to reach the 39 and 31-goal returns of the last two seasons, while his eight assists is a respectable tally but hardly Earth-shattering.
Even his 76.4 per cent pass completion is down from the 80.9 per cent of last term and 80 per cent of the year before.
But where Neymar has excelled this season is in the intangibles, the aspects of the game not as easily presented in a neat package of numbers. His work off the ball has been tireless and selfless. The 3-4-3 formation that Enrique has been utilising of late would fall apart were the Brazilian negligent in his defensive duties, or unwilling to hug the touchline when width is required.
Before the former Roma and Celta Vigo coach opted to switch to three at the back, Neymar’s role had already evolved into one which demanded greater effort and afforded less limelight.
With Messi taking up a more central position than his customary spot on the right flank, the player deployed on the right of the midfield three — be it Ivan Rakitić, Rafinha or André Gomes — has had to move over to compensate, with Neymar dropping deeper on the left side to plug the gap this has created.
Though they were lining up nominally in a 4-3-3, with Messi central and Neymar tucked back on the left, Barca’s shape effectively became 4-4-2, meaning the Brazilian was saddled with greater defensive responsibility than had been the case in his usual inside-forward/winger hybrid role.
Neymar has now scored 285 goals for club & country over his career.
He only turned 25-years-old last month… 😳 pic.twitter.com/XTUoYGEUJF
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 9, 2017
Appearing less frequently in high, central zones and a not as regular a scorer as in previous campaigns, many questioned whether Neymar was contributing enough, and asked when his form would return.
That was to criminally underplay the work Neymar was putting in, however. With 2.9 key passes per game, he is creating more chances than at any stage in his career, while also recording a high mark for dribbles per game (5.4) and crosses per game (2.1).
Furthermore, with 1.5 tackles and 0.4 interceptions per league outing, the gifted attacker is contributing more defensively than at any point during his four years in Spain.
At times, he has been more wing-back than winger, and his driving forward runs have offered an outlet to his side, relieving the pressure of an opposition’s press.
Messi will continue to get the lion’s share of the plaudits, but the work Neymar is doing for his side has made him absolutely vital to any future success Barcelona achieve.