With one arm raised to the sky and a hand firmly gripped around a red laminated card made of paper, everything seemingly changed.
The game at hand. Barcelona’s dreams of a possible title. Hope.
As minds fluttered and thoughts morphed into what-now’s, one thing remained constant — Neymar.
Coming into the match, the mercurial wing-man had been in some of the finest form of his life. Often times left to stand on his tippy toes beneath the massive shadows cast by Leo Messi and Luis Suarez, it was now the Brazilian left standing the tallest. His seven minutes and seventeen seconds of divine intervention against PSG, which included two goals and an assist, had alone pushed him into Barcelona lore. It was a transformative moment. A moment in which the superstar said “Get the bleep out of my way, I got this.” Left rubbing your eyes, you’d be lying if you didn’t think it:
“Did this kid just become the best in the world?”
It was so much more then those 7 pandemonium filled minutes though. All season, everything was trending that way. A collective individualist, his runs at defenders have almost always been successful. Opposition back-lines have had no choice but to watch his magic on the ball. That attention left others free to roam, leaving enormous passing lanes and even larger goal scoring opportunities. His eight assists in this Champions League are a record – all from open play.
He was even doing the dirty work too, often times playing the role of wing-back by sprinting into defense to lend a helping hand, before igniting the counter-attack all in the same sequence. All of the skill was finally coming together, including what many believed he would never master -- his mind.
"I congratulated Neymar for his game and for the admiration I have for him," Sevilla manager, Jorge Sampaoli told a post-match press conference. "He is a worthy successor to Messi and is on the road to big things. I have a good relationship with him."
All of those untimely yellow cards, childish spats with opponents. Slowly, it was becoming a thing of the past. But then, it happened again.
Down 1-0 through 64 minutes, Barcelona were facing an uphill climb but one that shouldn’t have been completely unexpected. With everything seemingly going their way over the past few weeks and a titanic math-up on Tuesday with Juventus in the Champions League, a lack of focus was to be expected. After all, for much of this season Malaga have been downright rubbish. They had won just twice since February 19th and had been sitting 15th in the table, with a season plummeting so far that at one point they faced the threat of relegation. All things considered, that excuse should’ve went out the window a few hours prior. Heading north to the capital, table setters Real Madrid were five minutes away from keeping the status quo, before Antoine Griezmann and his Atletico mates had other ideas. Down 1-0 with no open seemingly in sight, Angel Correa found the ray of sunshine as the cutting Frenchman found just enough room behind Nacho and Dani Carvajal, before depositing home around the out streached arms of Keylor Navas. The preverbal last minute goal line was busy when Sergio Ramos came calling this time around, ending the match in a 1-1 draw and all of the momentum swinging back at the feet of the Blaugrana.
Barca may have been down up to that point, but was there really any doubt that an equalizer was just minutes away? Time and again this season they had faced similar circumstances. An almost sick reveling in the role of cardiac kids.
Minutes earlier, the equalizer almost came as a superb individual moment from Neymar saw his shot from a narrow angle hit the upright before bouncing wide for a goal-kick. His frustration seemed to be building, but already on a yellow, tempers would need to be controlled. On the precipice of another one of his game-breaking runs, the ball would be deflected down the field. Neymar and Diego Llorente would go chasing. The Real Madrid-loanee seemed to arrive first, but not before the Brazilian had already made up his mind. Slicing right through the Spaniard, Neymar was sent off. If that weren’t bad enough, he then thought it would be prudent to sarcastically applaud the 4th official on his way to the showers. Down to 10, Barcelona would push forward in search of the goal but it would never come; at least not for them. Malaga would add another and that was that. A chance to be level on points at the top had now become a deficit of 3.
Now, it has all but been officially confirmed. Neymar will be handed a 3 game suspension, banning him from the most important match of the season — El Clásico.
Just when it appeared he had learned, another lesson has been bestowed to be mastered. But maybe this is just who he is. Better yet, it’s who he’s always been. Mundo Deportivo have reported that he has changed/tied his boots during a match five times since the PSG game. The stunt often leaves Barca down to 10 men and also leads to allegations from social media theorists that it could be a marketing ploy because TV cameras pan to him changing his footwear. It has largely been ignored because his play has allowed it to be, but now the distraction has once again taken center stage.
We have seen this movie before. Unmitigated brilliance, awash with child-like petulance and a longing to be the untouchable man. Opposing players know this, constantly needling and prodding until the haystack comes crashing down.
Redemption has presented itself against Juventus tonight but who will show up?
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me....