Neymar enjoying Barça life ahead of first UCL final

Andy West 6/06/2015
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Focused: Neymar.

At most clubs, a left winger who scored 38 goals in a season could fairly expect to be richly feted as a glorious talent of unrivalled quality.

– VIDEO: Five things to know about the Champions League final
– Where to watch the UEFA Champions League final in the UAE 
– Barcelona’s Mascherano warns of Tevez UCL final threat 
– From Pogba to Messi: Combined Barcelona & Juventus XI 

For Neymar, however, life at Barcelona means being forced to shelter under the considerable shadow cast by his fellow South American teammate Lionel Messi, whose outrageous goalscoring feats have dwarfed everyone else’s contribution to the team’s march towards a possible treble.

But the 23-year-old Brazilian wouldn’t have it any other way, making it clear that – for now, at least – he is happy to play second fiddle to the player he idolised for many years and can now enjoy close up.

In the longer term, though, Neymar is also fully prepared to admit that he is fired by burning ambition to achieve both personal and team glory – starting with Saturday evening in Berlin, where he will make his first appearance in a Champions League final.

With this richly gifted and fiercely competitive young man, one thing can be almost taken for granted – it won’t be his last.

You must have been dreaming about playing in a Champions League final for years. How does it feel now it is happening?

I am excited to be playing in my first Champions League final, I am happy for the fans and my team-mates that we are there, now we must make sure we do everything we can to get the right result.

In 2015, you have already beaten the reigning European champions, Spanish champions, German champions, French champions and English champions. Now it’s the Italian champions…another win, right?

We hope so. We are prepared, we are focused, we know we are playing well as a team, and we hope it can be another Champions League win in the history of Barcelona.

Juventus are renowned as a superb defensive team. How will you score against them?

We are confident we can score goals, but we are not just looking at Juventus as a good defensive team. Pirlo, Pogba, Tevez are all special players, they can score goals as well.

Personally, you have been brilliant in the latter stages of the Champions League, with six goals in the quarter and semifinals. Do you feel like it’s your competition this year?

I hope it is our year. It is nice to score goals, but what is important is that as a team we win the Champions League.

Having lived through last season’s lack of trophies under Tata Martino, how would you describe Luis Enrique’s contribution to the team this season?

Very big, we are playing well, especially since the start of the year. It is the coach who has us playing this way, he must take credit for it.

Despite the success you have enjoyed this season, Luis Enrique’s future is still unclear. Would you like him to stay?

Yes, I think all the players would. What about Dani Alves – is there much frustration in the dressing room that he hasn’t been given a new contract?

He has said he will not decide anything until the summer, and that’s the sensible choice. With a Champions League final left to play that must be the focus of all of us.

You have more than doubled your goal scoring output this season. How do you explain that?

I am growing as a player and maturing all the time, but my goals would not be possible without all my team-mates. When you play in this Barcelona team, you know chances will always be created.

Your understanding with Lionel Messi looks better now. Would you agree with that and if so, how has it happened?

The more time we spend in training and in games the better our understanding has become. He is the best no doubt, it is an honour for me to be able to learn off him. Always I am learning off him, because like him I want to become a part of football history.

What about Luis Suarez, what specific qualities does he offer to the team?

Now you can see he is scoring a lot of goals, but even earlier in the season when the goals were not there he was working hard for the team. He wasn’t thinking I have to score he was happy creating chances for us, that says a lot about his character.

Tell us something about the off-pitch relationship between you, Messi and Suarez. Who is the joker, who is the loud one, who is the most serious? How does the chemistry work?

We laugh every day in training. Of course we work hard to achieve what we want, but there is a lot of laughter also at Barcelona.

Off the pitch you always look happy and smiling. Do you have to work at that sometimes or does it come naturally?

It is all natural, I have much to smile about.

You are only 23 but have scored more than 200 career goals – far more than either Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo at the same age. Do you have personal ambitions to achieve as much as they have?

They have both achieved and won many things which is also my ambition, but I am not looking to replicate anybody.

Messi and Ronaldo are both a few years older than you – do you want to inherit their status as the best player in the world after they have retired? Does personal recognition like that motivate you?

I have always had the ambition to be the best player in the world. At the moment it is Messi, but yes one day of course I would like to be.

How long do you think you will stay at Barcelona? Will you be like Messi, Iniesta and Xavi and stay forever, or are you curious to have different experiences?

There is nowhere to go when you are at Barcelona, I believe I am playing for the best team in the world.

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Leading light: Messi.

Xavi and Andrea Pirlo’s last Champions League final; Neymar and Paul Pogba’s first; Argentina team-mates Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano going head-to-head; Luis Suarez against Patrice Evra; the grand old man of goalkeeping, Gigi Buffon, facing young pretender Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

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– From Pogba to Messi: Combined Barcelona & Juventus XI 

Saturday night’s Champions League final certainly possesses enough storylines to keep us all fascinated. But let’s not kid ourselves. Really, we all know that the presence of one man is looming large over this final, sending everyone else into the shade – Lionel Messi.

For the last five months, Messi has been so brilliant it is virtually impossible to find the appropriate adjectives.

To an extent, statistics can be cited to illustrate his splendour: since January, he has scored 35 goals and registered 16 assists, figures achieved by very few players in an entire season. Those numbers are the biggest single factor behind Barca’s sensational run of form, which has already seen them defeat all-comers including Atletico and Real Madrid, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich.

Messi’s post-January La Liga statistics also compare very favourably to his previous productivity: 15 league goals and seven assists before Christmas, against 28 goals and 11 assists since New Year’s Day. It appears, then, that he is simply playing much better now than he was in December.

But in reality the situation is more complex, because the Argentine has been performing well all season, right from the word go in August, looking a fitter and hungrier player than the tired, struggling shadow of himself who laboured through the previous campaign.

The great difference lies in Barca’s team structure, which was conspicuous by its absence in the early months of the campaign while new manager Luis Enrique chopped and changed his line-ups and tactics during a fragmented and frustrating early tenure.

Throughout that period, Messi’s individual brilliance was one of the team’s few saving graces. At home against local rivals Espanyol in early December, for example, Barca were little short of atrocious in the first half and trailed 1-0 as half-time approached. Then Messi took over, equalising just before the break and going on to complete his hat-trick in a 5-1 victory.

Barca did not deserve to win that game by four goals and only did so because of Messi. But the lack of team structure meant the appearance of his brilliance was random and haphazard, rather than directed and channelled – he was, for example, powerless to prevent his team from dropping points in a 0-0 draw against lowly Getafe.

It is already well documented that everything changed following a 1-0 defeat at Real Sociedad at the start of January, which prompted a week of angry soul-searching.

From that moment, Barca were transformed as they – finally – adopted a consistent approach, a key part of which was Messi’s new position on the right wing.

Now, the team knows what it is doing and how it can get the most out of Messi, allowing the Argentine to apply his talents in service of the team rather than having to do everything on his own.

Messi’s magic – like the team – is now focused. He is playing with purpose rather than mere hope, allowing the full extent of his genius to shine. And if the team comes together again on Saturday night, Juve’s chances of stopping him are minimal.

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Safe hands: Gigi Buffon.

Veteran Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon insists that the Italian champions have not come to Berlin to lie down against Barcelona.

– VIDEO: Five things to know about the Champions League final
– Where to watch the UEFA Champions League final in the UAE 
– Barcelona’s Mascherano warns of Tevez UCL final threat 
– From Pogba to Messi: Combined Barcelona & Juventus XI 

Like Barcelona, Juventus have already secured a domestic league and cup double this season and are now looking to win what would be an unprecedented treble by adding a third European Cup on Saturday night.

But the Catalans’ star-studded attack of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, who have scored a stunning 120 goals between them this season, give them the edge.

“I think it would be fair to say that, objectively, Barcelona are the favourites because they have great individual players with great skill,” said Buffon.

“Any team with players like Messi, Neymar and Suarez, with Iniesta playing behind them, are the favourites. They are lucky to have such players in their squad, but when you meet a team like Juventus with Carlos Tevez, Paul Pogba and Leonardo Bonucci etc… I think we’re not necessarily here to be the victims, we have a chance.”

Messi alone has scored 58 goals and is bidding to become the first player to score in three Champions League finals having also netted in 2009 and 2011.

However, Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri says rather than focusing purely on trying to stop Barca’s South American trio, his forwards Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata must look to test the Catalans’ German goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

“Neymar, Suarez and Messi, it’s the usual question we have been pondering since we reached the final: how do you stop them?” said Allegri.

 

“They are excellent players and we’ll have to be at the top of our game, but we won’t be playing for a draw. We need to score.”

Juve lost key defender Giorgio Chiellini to a calf problem on Thursday, with Andrea Barzagli expected to come in if the 34-year-old passes a fitness test on a leg injury which has kept him out of action for the last two weeks.

Allegri added: “Barzagli and Angelo Ogbonna are both fit; If Barzagli feels okay then he’ll play.”

Meanwhile, Enrique insists teamwork not individual brilliance is the key for Barcelona. The greatest weight of expectation, as always, will be placed upon Messi’s shoulders but Enrique wants his team to function as a unit rather than relying solely on their superstar.

He said “Messi is obviously the best player in the world, but we go into the game as a collective. If all we did was attack with three players and defend with eight, we wouldn’t have won so many games. The position we’re in shows that the team has worked marvellously together.”

Although the expectation is for a game with possession dominated by Barca while Juve defend deep and seek to launch counter-attacks, Enrique, who expects Iniesta to overcome a calf strain to start, added: “It won’t be a clash of styles. Juve also like to have the ball, but we will try to play our game – control possession and minimise the opportunities for our opponent.

“The world is hoping for a great final and it would be good to have an open game. The champions of Spain against the champions of Italy – it should be quite a spectacle.”

Defender Gerard Pique, meanwhile, asserted Barca are “90 minutes from perfection” as Enrique’s team can win the treble for only the second time in the club’s history.

Pique, who played in the only other team to claim all three trophies in 2009, said: “Whatever happens, it will be a great season. But if we win this game, it will be perfect. We have achieved all our objectives and we have a great team – one of the best in the club’s history.”

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