Neymar primed and ready to deliver on his PSG mission statement as the club bid to finally reach Champions League promised land

Watch Neymar and his Paris Saint-Germain team-mates go toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich in the final of the Champions League - live, exclusive and free on BT Sport on Sunday 23 August

By Callum Davis Published: 23 August 2020 - 3.14am

Neymar is one step closer to leading PSG to Champions League glory

As pictures go, this one painted a thousand words. 

At the full-time whistle in Paris Saint-Germain's semi-final win over RB Leipzig, Neymar sunk to his knees, pressed his head to the ground for a moment before punching the air in sheer relief. They had made it.

A journey costing close to one billion euros was nearing it's conclusion, but the road has been a long and arduous one.

It's been almost three years since PSG made Neymar the most expensive player of all time but, on the eve of their blockbuster Champions League final against German bully boys Bayern Munich, the French club's big-spending owners are entitled to feel a little short changed.

Domestically, the Brazilian has played a key role in an era of unprecedented success for PSG that has brought seven Ligue 1 titles and five French Cups, including four trebles in six seasons. 

It's an impressive haul but one glaring omission remains: a European crown. 

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Neymar turned the footballing world upside down when he opted to leave Barcelona in 2017, disbanding the famous 'MSN' (Messi, Suarez and Neymar) strikeforce that had wreaked havoc across Europe on the way to Champions League glory in 2015.

He left to step out of the shadow of Lionel Messi and be the go-to guy for a team. But more than that - he left to become the greatest player in the world.

PSG's Champions League curse

2012/13: Quarter-finals - lost to Barcelona

2013/14: Quarter-finals - lost to Chelsea

2014/15: Quarter-finals - lost to Barcelona

2015/16: Quarter-finals - lost to Manchester City

2016/17: Round of 16 - lost to Barcelona

2017/18: Round of 16 - lost to Real Madrid

2018/19: Round of 16 - lost to Man Utd

To do that, he had to tick off one objective on his mission statement: win the Champions League with PSG.

Now, after three years at the club, Neymar's legacy is at stake with the French champions within touching distance of that elusive European crown.

Last week, Neymar wrote on his official website: "I’ve lived times of joy and some complicated ones, especially when I was unable to play due to injuries."

Fitness issues have certainly hampered the Brazilian prodigy's chances of lifting the famous trophy in the red and blue of PSG, but his off-field activities have not made fertile ground for sympathy.

Manager Thomas Tuchel admitted the forward's 27th birthday party last year had represented an unwelcome distraction, while the club's former full-back Thomas Meunier revealed earlier this month that the birthday parties were often "a bit extravagant".

The image of Neymar as being over-paid and over-partied has become an easy stick to beat him with, but it doesn't erase the fact that his time at Parc des Princes has been dogged by injury.

In his first season, Neymar faced off against a familiar foe as PSG went to the Bernabeu to play defending champions Real Madrid.

The contest was billed as being a straight shootout between five-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar - the man hell-bent on taking the crown.

But a brace for Ronaldo in a 3-1 first-leg win saw a disgruntled Neymar disappear straight down the tunnel at full-time.

The Brazlian missed the second leg, and a shot at redemption, with a broken foot as his team-mates crashed out 5-2 on aggregate.

If defeat to perennial champions Real was a bitter blow, the circumstances of their failure the following season were heartbreaking.

Drawn in the last 16 against Manchester United, PSG, once again without an injured Neymar, took control of the tie as Kylian Mbappé starred at Old Trafford to give them a two-goal buffer going into the second leg.

A brace from Romelu Lukaku put nerves on edge in the Parc des Princes, but the hosts were still on course for a 3-2 aggregate win and a place in the quarter-finals. 

However, PSG's last-16 hoodoo struck again as Presnel Kimpembe was adjudged to have blocked Diogo Dalot's shot with his hand following a lengthy VAR consultation. 

Up stepped an ice-cool Marcus Rashford to drill the penalty kick home and book United's place in the last eight of the Champions League.

The result left a bitter taste in Neymar's mouth: "It's a disgrace," he seethed on Instagram. "Four guys who know nothing about football watch a slow-motion replay in front of the television!"

"This time it took longer to sink in,” he later told Brazilian TV.

“I stayed at home for two days in bad shape, I just kept crying, I was really sad."

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Now Neymar is fuelled by the prospect of redemption.

For two seasons running he has been forced to watch from the sidelines as his dreams went up in smoke, but the 28-year-old can finally take hold of his own destiny. 

The Brazilian must once again bear the weight of a city's expectations on his shoulders - and he's relishing the responsiblilty. 

In the round of 16, the former Barca forward produced a talismanic performance, netting in both legs against Borussia Dortmund to end their last-16 hoodoo.  

Against Atalanta in the quarters, their first appearance in the last eight since 2016, PSG produced a late turnaround to beat Italian opposition for the first time in their history and book a last-four spot for the first time since 1995. 

Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting was the unlikely hero after scoring the decisive second goal, but it was Neymar's man-of-the-match performance that helped rescue victory from the jaws of defeat.

Trailing 1-0 in the 90th minute, the Brazilian's cross found countryman Marquinhos, who tapped home the equaliser.

Just three minutes later, Neymar's through ball set free Mbappé, who squared it to Choupo-Moting to finish for the winner.

While their 3-0 semi-final triumph over RB Leipzig proved to be more comfortable than the previous round, Neymar was once more at the heart of the action. 

The Brazilian failed to trouble the scorers but his audacious back-heeled flick to tee up Angel Di Maria for the second goal helped kill off the game before half-time.

As jubilant celebrations ensued on the pitch following the final whistle, there was an unmistakable air of relief, a sense that, perhaps, the Champions League demons have finally been exorcised.

With a titanic heavyweight battle against Bayern Munich on the horizon, BT Sport pundit Julien Laurens believes Neymar has won over his doubters with a change in attitude. 

"We are seeing a completely different Neymar," Laurens told BBC Radio.

"This is a Neymar who plays for the team, who invites all his teammates to his house for dinner so they can gel together.

"This is a Neymar that doesn't moan so much anymore, that doesn't showboat so much or play act in terms of diving... it's a completely different Neymar!

"Maybe it's because he is 28, he is maturing and realising he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

"Thomas Tuchel has let him do his thing and be the leader that everybody always wanted him to be in Paris and I think that has worked wonders for him."

That selflessness is borne out in his statistics. 

Since his Champions League debut for the club, Neymar has been directly involved in 59 goals in 59 matches, a tally that includes 24 assists. 

In fact, his sublime assist for Di Maria in the semis took him to 23 goal involvements in his last 19 appearances, including nine assists. 

“I believe that today I am in my best form for PSG," Neymar wrote on his website. 

"We are all united to achieve the great objective ahead of us. We want to mark this season with the Champions League. 

"We will fight for this, because we have never been so close."

And it's true, they have truly never been so close.

If he manages to score against Bayern, Neymar would become only the third player to net in the final for two different teams, along with Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic.

With form and fitness on his side, will it be third time lucky for Neymar and PSG's quest for European glory?

The Champions League final will be available to live stream on the BT Sport app, for small and large screen devices, on BTSport.com (at btsport.com/final on matchday), via BT Sport’s YouTube channel and for free on Virgin TV.

Tune in from 7pm on Sunday 23 August to watch the action unfold.