Improving Neymar key to Barcelona's pursuit of Real

Reuters News
|
Posted: Jan 29, 2015 5:58 AM

By Tim Hanlon

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Neymar took time to settle but is finally shining in Barcelona's devastating attacking trident with Villarreal the next La Liga opponents in their sights on Sunday as the Catalans continue their pursuit of Real Madrid.

The pressure of expectation and scandal over the true cost of his transfer fee from Santos in 2013 led former president Sandro Rosell to resign and appeared to weigh heavily on Neymar during his first season at the Nou Camp.

He also found it difficult to adapt to the physical demands of the Spanish league and picked up a series of injuries.

The Brazilian took a share of the blame for Barca finishing last season without a major trophy but helped by the media glare turning towards controversial signing Luis Suarez, Neymar is realizing his true potential on European soil.

The return to form of Lionel Messi has also played a part, while Suarez, although yet to show the lethal finishing he possessed at Liverpool, is linking up well.

Messi has more goals this season but Neymar has developed a habit of scoring in crucial matches, including his double as Barca twice came from behind to knock Atletico Madrid out of the King's Cup on Wednesday.

Barca booked a place in the semi-final with a 3-2 victory, 4-2 on aggregate, in a stormy game that saw Atletico finish with nine players.

Surprisingly, as the Catalan side are renowned for their short passing game through midfield, both goals came from rapid counter-attacks.

The first saw the forward trio combine to tear Atletico's defence apart with Messi finding Suarez, who in turn set up Neymar to finish clinically.

Neymar's over-exuberant celebrations and posturing on the pitch seemed to agitate the Atletico players and coach Luis Enrique felt it wise to take him off for the final 15 minutes.

"Neymar was his usual confident self and he gave us a lot in attack as well as defence. His game is about beating players and he did very well," the Barca coach told reporters.

"The game was getting a bit ugly and so we took Neymar off so that it didn't get any worse."

Real Madrid, a point clear of Barca at the top, take on Real Sociedad on Saturday without the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo, while Atletico, four points off the pace, aim to bounce back from their cup defeat when they travel to Eibar.

(Editing by John O'Brien)