Champions League: Is it time to sympathize with PSG's Neymar?

The memes of Neymar ...

Posted: Nov 8, 2018 9:13 AM
Updated: Nov 8, 2018 9:13 AM

The memes of Neymar rolling in agony along high streets and motorways remain one of the enduring memories of a thrilling World Cup in Russia.

Spectacular goals and knee-knocking finishes admittedly made the footballing world smile during the summer, but so too did the #neymarchallenge on social media as fans, multinationals and even Portugal's 911 service mocked the Brazilian superstar's theatrics on the pitch.

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According to Swiss broadcaster RTS, the world's most expensive player spent 14 minutes on the floor during football's most celebrated tournament. Many of those minutes would have been spent rolling around in apparent agony before getting back on his feet again to continue with the dribbles, flicks and no-look passes.

But is Neymar more sinned against than sinning? Should the Paris Saint-Germain forward receive more protection from referees and less ridicule from the masses?

According to beIN Sports data, during the opening rounds of this season's Champions League, the forward has been awarded 20 fouls -- 14 more than his teenage teammate Kylian Mbappe, who is equally adept at bamboozling defenders with trickery and pace, and 16 more than Liverpool's Mo Salah over the same number of games.

READ: Neymar -- ridiculed for his theatrics

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, who has played just twice in the Champions League this season, has won four fouls while Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo has won seven over three games.

If all players are treated equally, it is a striking statistic that Neymar has won considerably more fouls in Europe's elite competition than the world's other best forwards.

Bought by the French champions in 2017 for $263 million, Neymar cut a frustrated figure in Italy Tuesday as Napoli fought back to draw 1-1 against a PSG side third in a group that also includes last season's finalist Liverpool. There is still much to do if the Parisians are to progress to the knockout stages.

Undoubtedly, a man of Neymar's talents, a player who can change a game with a moment of brilliance, is a marked man.

It would be foolish for defenses to leave such a player to roam unattended. A sumptuous pass over Napoli's defense to Mbappe early in first half at the Stadio San Paolo illustrated the danger Neymar's creativity alone poses to opponents. He is also lethal in front of goal, scoring three in the opening four group games.

Napoli wisely, though Neymar himself would probably say unfairly, paid close attention to the 26-year-old. Towards the end of the match, Neymar -- booked in stoppage time for dissent -- could be seen shouting at referee Bjorn Kuipers and appeared to be held back by Mbappe after taking issue with one of the referee's decisions.

The Brazilian would later accuse the Dutchman of saying something "disrespectful" to him during the match. "On the pitch, we are asked to show respect towards the referees. We should get the same in return," he told reporters afterwards.

There were those on social media who sympathized with the Brazilian. "He often frustrates me by going down too easy (imo) -- but you can see why he does on a night like this when he tries to stay on his feet and gets absolutely nothing," tweeted journalist Robin Bairner.

In another tweet, Barnier said: "Frustrating night for #Neymar. He's been on the end of numerous niggling fouls, several not given, and yet he's been booked for dissent."

Perhaps some of Neymar's problems are of his own making. Against Switzerland at the World Cup, he was fouled 10 times -- the most by one player in a game since Alan Shearer in 1998 -- but his response to such tactics was to fall, many would say, too easily to the ground.

Such actions have consequences, and shapes a player's reputation.

"Did you watch the World Cup?" USA defender Deandre Yedlin apparently told a referee after Neymar fell following a tackle from the American during a recent international match.

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But perhaps the time has come to empathize with the Brazilian, an artist having to deal with snarling opponents attempting to stop him from lighting up a pitch with his brushstrokes.

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