Cometh the hour, cometh the man – in the must-win game against Manchester United at their den, PSG needed a hero to step up and conquer Old Trafford. Who else but Neymar showed his individual brilliance again, when the chips were down!
Real Madrid planned to create a home for the superstars of world football and at the start of the twenty-first century, Florentino Perez signed Ronaldo of Brazil from Inter. Ronaldo had won the World Cup and Ballon d’Or in that season – he announced his arrival for Madrid with a quickfire debut-goal.
Gradually, he gelled very well with the Galacticos in Bernabeu and showing his talents defying overweight.
In the Champions League, Real Madrid traveled to Old Trafford for the Quarterfinals clash against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. United were one of the best sides in Europe back then. When Sir Alex Ferguson was asked to compare the Brazilian Ronaldo with the Portuguese one, the Manchester United manager said Cristiano Ronaldo was a better player than the “fat, old” Ronaldo.
On April 23, 2003, Old Trafford and Sir Alex witnessed one of the greatest individual performances, as Ronaldo fired Real Madrid into the Champions League semi-finals with a sublime hat-trick against Manchester United. The match ended 4-3 to United, but the Los Blancos had won 3-1 in the first leg at the Bernabeu.
“Real Madrid shut his mouth for me,” Ronaldo said. “It was a lack of respect. A professional of his age, an English Sir, should not be so disrespectful. It was not classy. I have no words for this gentleman, except that I hope the team he manages always loses.”
But now United’s boss has sought to repair the damage after offending one of modern football’s greatest ever players.
Speaking to Brazilian website Lancenet, Ferguson said: “It was a misunderstanding. I made a joke with a former athlete who I always admired, without any intention to offend.
I commented something for the two Ronaldos, Cristiano and the Phenomenon, two extraordinary players, and made a joke to make mention of the Brazilian Ronaldo. Always respected him a lot on and off the field. Anyway, it was a misunderstanding – finished.”
Almost, three and a half years later, April 24, 2007, AC Milan traveled to the Old Trafford Stadium for the Champions League first-leg semifinal clash against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils who boasted with the talents like Cristiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney, in the first league of the Champions League semi-final.
Many people put their hope on the Red Devils in the match. That was because Manchester United came to the semifinals after a landslide victory over AS Roma. On the other hand, AC Milan can qualify for the semifinals after struggling to beat Bayern Munich.
But Kaka stepped up to produce a spectacular show at the Old Trafford. The commentators described the display as “Magical”. Milan lost the first-leg by 3-2, but in the return leg at San Siro, Kaka devastated the Red Devils and the rest is history.
Old Trafford has witnessed the magic of the Brazilians before, and yet again, last night, they were stunned by another special player from the land of wonderful people, love, joy, and music – Neymar.
Before traveling to Old Trafford, the state of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) was shaky in the Champions League. The defeat against Manchester United at Paris hurt and the lean-patch hardly gave hope of something special. The players were hit by the lack of self-confidence and the coach, Thomas Tuchel, was left spending his days listening about getting sacked sooner or later.
PSG needed their special player to step up.
The stage was set for Neymar to carry the legacy of Ronaldo and Kaka and own the pitch at Old Trafford.
Manchester United started to press higher from the word go with the pivots Fred and Scott McTominay trying to press Paredes and Marco Verratti and dent their central progression.
This left spaces in the midfield, where Neymar constantly switched from left to center and dictating the game with his intensity and coordination with Kylian Mbappe. The Manchester United center-backs were on the back foot because they could not progress and cover the space.
Within six minutes, Mbappe thumped a strike into a crowd of red shirts, with Neymar on hand to lash home the rebound from an acute angle.
This led Fred and McTominay to drop down as pivots and made the press less-intense.
Neymar forced Manchester United shift from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2 so that midblock is possible.
Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes became the two strikers upfront.
This led Danilo to drop back in between the two center-backs to outweigh the strikers numerically.
Florenzi and Dialo pushed up to guard the flanks in the midfield – it was a 4 vs 5 situation.
With the battle in the midfield getting more intense, PSG operated through the flanks – 35% of the attacks came from the left flank while 41% from the right.
Marcus Rashford advanced to press Kimpembe, which allowed him to pass the ball towards Daialo and Dialo brought Wan-Bissaka towards him, which left Neymar free.
Neymar exploited the spaces while the battle in the central park was in action. Moise Keane played more as a shield or tip of the midfield.
Neymar was the leader upfront and created pressure along with Mbappe.
Neymar pushed higher and dragged Lindelof out of his position.
Then Neymar dropped deeper in that left-side position to link-up with Dialo, which out-positioned McTominay and block the passing lanes – a space was created on the center, where Neymar ran through so that Paredes and Verratti can progress.
McTominay committed five fouls without being booked, but that could not stop the dribbling ability, intelligence, and intent of Neymar.
But during the transition, PSG were proving vulnerable.
Martial started the move with a surge at goal, but his effort is saved by Kaylor Navas. Wan-Bissaka gathers the rebound and slides a pass to Rashford. He fired a right-footed strike towards the target and it’s helped past Navas by the legs of Danilo.
That goal rejuvenated United and PSG fell under pressure.
Anthony Martial missed a glaring chance to complete the turnaround and Edinson Cavani hit the crossbar after the break.
Neymar sensed PSG were hanging in a rope.
He took on the United markers and broke through with a chip down the left side channel where Florenzi latched onto the loose-ball and floated across the face of the United goal. Marquinhos stretched to head, but his effort glanced off the top of the bar.
Tuchel made two crucial substitutions – Ander Herrera and Bakker were introduced.
The shape changed from 4-3-3 to a stable 3-5-2, which allowed Neymar to wander with more freedom, who again rolled the ball from the path of Bakker and attempted a shot, which was stopped by David de Gea.
Neymar was a consistent threat and United felt the pressure, which led to a corner.
Marquinhos stabbed the ball from a close range and the lead of PSG was restored.
United were feeling the pressure and started to lose their calm and composure.
Fred, who had been fortunate to escape a red card in the first half, received his marching orders for a tackle on United old boy Ander Herrera not long after the second goal.
With 10-men on the pitch, it was becoming tougher for United to weather the storm of Neymar.
In the stoppage-time, Neymar started a dangerous move with a break from the back and offloaded the ball to Mbappe, who released Rafinha on the left-side. Rafinha cut the back to Neymar, who scripted a left-footed strike from the close range.
PSG won one of the most important matches in their Champions League history.
Old Trafford witnessed another Brazil to rock and it was Neymar!