Brazil captain Neymar expected to greet a good friend in the centre circle of el Monumental on Thursday when the Selecao meet Argentina in the highlight of South America’s World Cup qualifying campaign.
But a knee injury means his Barcelona colleague Lionel Messi will have to sit this one out.
Coach Dunga, midfielder Lucas Lima and goalkeeper Cassio have all played down Messi’s absence when talking to the media this week, insisting their old rival still poses a significant threat, but from Messi’s shadow it’s hoped the returning Neymar (back from a four-match suspension) will emerge once more.
Neymar has certainly made a habit of doing exactly that of late. Since Messi was struck down by a knee injury in September, the Brazil captain has stepped up to lead Barcelona’s attack and is arguably in the best form of his career.
And now many Brazilian commentators are calling on him to do the same for his country.
There was never much doubt when Neymar decided to leave Santos in 2013 that he would select Barcelona as his destination. But in some corners his choice was criticised, with detractors insisting he would spend years in the shadow of Barca’s true king, Messi.
But when the hottest property in world football arrived at Camp Nou, he did so without aspirations to usurp his new teammate.
“I’ve never worried about being the best in the world. The best is already here and that’s Messi,” Neymar said after completing his switch to Spain.
“I’m one of the luckiest men in the world to be able to play with him and it’s an honour. I’m very happy to be realising my life’s dream.”
With one year to go before a World Cup on home soil, Neymar was focused on improving against tougher opposition and different style of marker. He’d outgrown the game in his homeland – his performances so impressive he became the first player since Pele to be declared hors concours by Brazilian football.
He had also led Santos to their first Copa Libertadores title in half a century. The then 21-year-old was more than happy to play second-fiddle to multi-Ballon d’Or winner Messi.
But still doubts were voiced over his ability to make an immediate impact at the elite level. Neymar has emphatically shrugged them aside since arrival in European football, culminating in his major role in Barcelona’s historic treble last season.
Between them, Neymar Messi and Luis Suarez hit a staggering 122 goals. But it was Neymar who, arguably, made the biggest difference in the biggest competition of them all: making history as the first player to score in both quarter-finals, both semi-finals and final of the Champions League.
He also became the first player to find the net for the winning team in finals of both Europe’s and South America’s elite club competitions.
It is in the last few weeks, however, that Neymar has truly emerged from the great Messi’s mythical shadow. On September 26, Barcelona fans feared the worst when Messi suffered a knee injury against Las Palmas.
As news broke that the four-time World Player of the Year would be missing for up to two months, the burden to fire Barca through an extended period without their most important player fell to Neymar and Suarez.
And it’s an opportunity Neymar has relished as he and Suarez hit five goals each in the Barcelona’s five Messi-less encounters.
It’s the Brazilian, however, who leads the scoring charts in la Liga with 11 goals in 10 outings – moreover, no player in Spain created more chances than the 37 Neymar has provided his team-mates.
His form led Argentina coach Gerardo Martino to insist this week Neymar was now on the same level as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have held a duopoly over the Ballon d’Or dating back to 2008.
Martino has seen his attack ravished by injury, with Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez also missing. The two-time world champions will be able to call on the PSG duo Angel Di Maria and Ezequial Lavezzi, and in-form Gonzalo Higuain, but the general thought in Brazil is that this is the time for Dunga’s side to stamp their authority on the qualification campaign on the biggest stage of them all.
Dunga could certainly use the victory as he continues to face criticism for his side’s showings in competitive internationals.
“Why didn’t Neymar do that for me?” Dunga joked when asked about Neymar’s stunning strike against Villarreal this past weekend.
He has the chance to do so on Thursday. And in the form he’s in right now, few would bet against him.