Real Madrid tie sets stage for Neymar to launch Ballon d'Or claim

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This is why Neymar left Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain.

Sure, the money undoubtedly was a factor, but the biggest motivation to leave the Catalonia paradise and eject himself from potentially one of the greatest ever attacking triumvirates, was to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and assume a starring role.

Seeing as he dominates the narratives ahead of PSG’s trip to Real Madrid — mission accomplished … well, sort of.

Taking centre stage was never going to be a problem following his high-profile €222 million transfer that made him the most expensive player of all-time.

The second and third phases of his mission are slightly more daunting — win the Champions League and his first Ballon d’Or. Failing to do so would render his move to the French capital redundant.

Despite the fact that he’s been given every privilege at PSG, including jetting off for a week to celebrate his 26th birthday, the transition hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Neymar.

And that started with a transfer saga that turned into a rather ugly affair with him storming off during a training session and Barcelona’s lawyers attempting to block the deal by pulling out every technicality in the book.

Having successfully made the switch, French football – predictably – hasn’t proved to be a very challenging landscape for the Brazilian who has nonchalantly cruised to 22 goals in 21 games in the domestic scene this season without breaking a sweat.

A strained relationship with Edinson Cavani, which often boils over on the pitch, hasn’t helped matters. After their initial clash over penalty-taking duties back in September, tensions ran high again last month in a fixture against Dijon.

Neymar, who scored four goals on the day, was jeered by his own fans when he refused to let the Uruguayan take a penalty in the 8-0 win which would’ve seen him become the club’s all-time leading goal-scorer.

PSG may not feel like home for the prodigious talent but he must keep his eye on the prize and remember why he’s there in the first place.

Facing Real Madrid and going toe-to-toe with five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo in the pursuit of European glory is just the kind of challenge that Neymar would have coveted.

Who will come out on top?

Who will come out on top?

This is the sort of game that has the potential to exalt him to the pinnacle of world football alongside Messi and Ronaldo and Madrid’s interest in the Brazilian has only raised the stakes.

Despite his recent upturn in form in La Liga, the Portuguese has had a difficult season with the team struggling to find their rhythm. At 33, whispers of Los Blancos being in the hunt for an heir to Ronaldo’s Bernabeu throne are steadily rising in decibels.

Neymar is the latest to emerge as a potential target exclusively for that purpose and it’s no surprise given that they lost out to Barcelona for the Brazilian’s signature when he first landed in Spain.

Florentino Perez has recently reiterated his desire to sign Neymar and a return to La Liga would seem like an appealing next chapter in his career but not before closing this one on the right note.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic put PSG on the map and Neymar has been entrusted with elevating them to the next level, one where they’re capable of rubbing shoulders with the biggest European powerhouses, and not just in the transfer market.

Neymar moved to Paris for a purpose and this game, against the reigning European champions led by the Ballon d’Or winner, represents everything he needs to beat to fulfill it.

He spent four years as Messi’s deputy at Barcelona but did he pick up any new tricks along the way? He’s already proved that he is capable of delivering on the big stage when he inspired that remarkable comeback against his current employers in last season’s competition.

But can he hit those heights like Messi has, and still does, time and time again? A starring performance to help PSG past Madrid would be a good start to answering just that.

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