SOME will consider the comparison a sacrilege. But it came to me long ago, and was in my mind back in 2012 watching him at Old Trafford playing for
SOME will consider the comparison a sacrilege.
But it came to me long ago, and was in my mind back in 2012 watching him at Old Trafford playing for Brazil’s Olympic team. There is something of George Best in Neymar.
It is in the extraordinary flexibility of the ankles, permitting a balance which enables a range of movements at pace.
It is in the velocity of thought; opponents seem to be operating in slow motion in comparison.
Plus, of course, the technical ability to improvise at high speed, to do things that many other world class players could not even dream about.
But Neymar, of course, will not be showing off his Best-like tricks at Old Trafford tonight.
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A fractured metatarsal rules him out of the Paris Saint Germain side that come to Manchester for the first leg of their Champions League clash.
PSG are hoping that he might be back in time for the quarter finals. That, of course, depends on his team-mates overcoming a resurgent United.
Their failure would be especially frustrating for Neymar. Leaving Barcelona to join PSG was a gamble.
And with no opportunity to shine in the knock out stages of the Champions League, an early PSG elimination would effectively mean that Neymar’s first two years in France have been wasted.
The depth of his new club’s financial resources have inevitably turned the domestic championship into a cakewalk.
Those same resources mean that PSG fully expect to reach the knock out stages of the Champions League.
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This, then, is when the real stuff begins. As a player, as a leader of the pack in an environment he chose, Neymar at PSG was always going to be judged by his performances at the business end of the Champions League.
Last year, though, he only had 90 minutes to show his stuff – and put in a poor display in the first leg against Real Madrid.
By the return game he was out of action, breaking down with a metatarsal injury. And the curse has struck once more.
Last year’s injury also cut back on his preparation time for Russia 2018 – and his previous World Cup campaign also ended in injury heartbreak.
All of this has sparked a debate – how many of his injury problems are brought on by his style of play?
This is eclipsed, though, by a bigger discussion; just how good is Neymar? How much is hype and how much is substance?
It is fascinating that these questions still hover over the career of a player who last week celebrated his 27th birthday.
By that landmark George Best was well into his downward slide and had little future in front of him at Manchester United.
And to use a more contemporary example, closer to Neymar’s heart, by the age of 27 Ronaldinho had already conquered the world, left a legacy of memories for which he is still revered and had effectively given up on meeting the demands necessary to keep playing at the highest level.
Neymar, meanwhile, still has plenty to prove.
It is hard to think of him as a 27 year old. There is something of the perpetual adolescent about Neymar – who, incidentally, continues to style himself as Neymar Junior.
The good news is that the comparisons with Best and Ronaldinho only go so far. Neymar may well enjoy all the celebrity trappings.
But as yet there are no signs of him going off the rails like Best, or of having fallen out of love with the rigours of the professional game a la Ronaldinho.
He still appears to love what he does, and the reports of those who play and train with him are usually positive.
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Time is still on his side. Providing his body can stand the strain, he still has some seven years, and two World Cups, to prove himself at the highest level.
And should PSG manage to rise to the occasion without him and get through to the quarter finals of the Champions League, there may be just a crumb of comfort for United fans.
If Neymar can get fit in time, then something of the spirit of George Best will be present in the closing stages of the world’s premier club competition – and we all might get a little closer to being able to come up with an answer to one of football’s most fascinating questions; just how good is Neymar?