Rarely in the world of football are us fans treated to so many wonderful matches in the space of a single week. From Marcelo Bielsa’s superb Athletic Bilbao side and their spectacularly dogged display in Manchester, beating United 3×2 in Old Trafford, to the epic 4×4 draw between Godoy Cruz and Atlético Nacional in the Copa Libertadores, a classic tussle between attacker and counter-attacker.
Even more rewarding however, were two virtuoso performances from two of the world’s best forwards, almost singlehandedly leading their clubs to victory. First of all, the undisputed best player on the planet, Lionel Messi and his record-breaking five goals in Barcelona’s 7×1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. The world looked on as Messi took apart the Leverkusen defence time and time again, before some of the game’s biggest personalities indulged in panegyrics over the 24 year-old, speculating over whether he really is the best of all time.
That very same evening, across the Atlantic Ocean, South America’s best put on his own show in the continent’s Champions League equivalent, the Copa Libertadores. The tie in question was Santos x Internacional, a crucial all-Brazilian clash in Group 1 between the two previous winners of the trophy. The player in question was none other than Santos’ spiky haired winger Neymar.
Santos lined up in their 4-3-1-2/4-4-2 diamond formation, the shape they will be using for the foreseeable future providing Ganso stays healthy. The system has subtle differences from the one used throughout 2011, in that they no longer have marauding right back-cum-midfielder Danilo (now of FC Porto). Uruguayan Jorge Fucile has replaced him, a much more reserved full back, while Ibson provides that extra forward threat from the right side of the midfield diamond.
There was a huge fuss made about Internacional’s starting formation, as coach Dorival Junior went with a 4-3-2-1 with a line of three volantes (defensive midfielders), a terribly safe and negative choice for an inherently profluent and attacking side. Dorival did try to justify his selection in the post-match press conference however, blaming injuries to his more attack-minded players and Guiñazú’s lack of recent match practice.
The first 45 minutes were terribly one-sided, Santos were attacking well and controlling proceedings with Neymar on the left and Ganso through the middle, while Inter could barely get out of their own half. The lack of a real central midfielder to link the defence and attack left the away side terribly fragmented, and as a result the deadly colorado front three of D’Alessandro, Oscar and Leandro Damião scarcely saw any of the ball.
Santos took the lead from the penalty spot on 20 minutes, after Borges was bundled to the ground inside the area by Inter defender Índio. Neymar converted the penalty expertly, delaying slightly in the middle of his run-up before sending Muriel the wrong way for the first of his superb hat-trick.
It was a very comfortable first half for Santos, they were rarely put under any pressure in defence and counted on some solid performances from Neymar, Ganso, and new signing Juan. Despite being a limited full back at the best of times, left back Juan provides a simple and yet very effective function in this Santos team. His presence in the attacking third gives Neymar someone to exchange passes with down the flank, or alternatively it gives him the license to drift inside to pose a central threat. In the first half, with his opposite number Nei completely pinned back by Neymar, Juan had free-rein of the left flank, able to gallop up and down the field.
Going into the second half, Inter coach Dorival Junior acknowledged his mistake in fielding three volantes and opted to bring on Argentine winger Jesús Dátolo for the struggling Élton. This switched Inter into a much more familiar 4-2-3-1 shape and allowed them to grab a foothold in the game by occupying Santos’ midfield and feeding the ball through to Leandro Damião.
However, just as Internacional were gradually tipping the balance in their favour, they fell victim to a true work of art, an indefensible masterpiece of a goal from Santos’ fleet-footed genius Neymar.
Picking up the ball deep in his own half, Neymar proceeded to dart towards the opposition goal at tremendous speed, passing four Internacional defenders before coolly lifting the ball over the helpless Muriel in the Inter goal. Over the course of the move Neymar ran at an average speed of over 32 kilometres per hour, a velocity that would be outlawed in suburban school zones…
Two goals down and with a mountain to climb, Dorival made a final positive change bringing on Dagoberto for Andres D’Alessandro. The introduction of Dagoberto gave Inter some fresh legs in their attacking quartet, and injected a more direct, pacey style of play, as compared to D’Alessandro’s more cerebral approach.
With Inter looking altogether more dynamic and dangerous, they managed to grab a goal on 63 minutes through Leandro Damião, reducing the deficit to one. However, only seconds later, they were brought crashing back down to earth with another wonderful goal from Neymar.
In similar style to his previous goal, Neymar picked the ball up just inside his own half and set off on another dribble, humiliating Inter defender Rodrigo Moledo with a deft piece of close control before once again lifting the ball over poor Muriel. Another wonderful goal from such a preposterously talented young player.
With the score at 3×1, the match was all but over. Inter continued to press and were arguably the better side for the last half hour, but after Neymar’s two wondergoals their collective confidence was shot to pieces. Santos held on to the result and in the process they picked up a vital three points in Group 1.
It was a solid performance from Santos, they were decent in all areas of the pitch and good value for the victory. Once again though, Neymar was the star of the show. The 20 year-old was spectacular as always, and he is now well on his way to becoming the star of a second consecutive Copa Libertadores season.
Internacional were made to pay the price for their over-cautious first half showing. When they switched style in the second half they did look industrious and dangerous, but Neymar’s glorious second half brace left them well-beaten. On another night they could have come away with a draw, but with an in-form Neymar lining up for the opposition, an impotent first half performance can easily prove to be fatal.
Header image credits: Fernando Pilatos/UOL