Two of the best players in the world could get rare measures of proper acclaim from difficult situations on Tuesday when Manchester City faces Paris Saint-Germain in a UEFA Champions League semifinal second leg at the Etihad Stadium.
For Kevin De Bruyne and Man City, his position as a maestro in Pep Guardiola's orchestra often has him talked about less than his manager, and City's expensive list of imports often sees praise drawn to shiny new objects like Phil Foden and Ruben Dias.
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But his last few seasons have seen him as a Man of the Match caliber performer in nearly every game, and leading Man City to a final by beating a star-studded previous finalist would force attention on the Belgian midfielder.
Then there's Neymar, who would produce a second-straight final with attack partner Kylian Mbappe hampered or perhaps even out of the second leg. Beating Man City's defense in that scenario would be incredibly impressive and further detail his exceptional status in the game.
Think we're making too much about them? Consider the following…
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Neymar says he'll give his life to get Paris Saint-Germain past Man City and back into the Champions League final.
The PSG star, 29, is chasing his second European Cup, one that would give Les Parisiens their first. He's also got the task of overcoming a 2-1 deficit to Man City that will require two goals and terrific defense in Manchester on Tuesday, all with Kylian Mbappe either out or not at 100% health.
Neymar's club no longer controls its Ligue 1 destiny, behind Lille with three matches left. but the UCL is the apple of PSG's eye.
"We have a very difficult game against Manchester City, but we have to believe, without thinking what the statistics say about our chances of winning," Neymar said. "Every Parisian has to believe in us and I'm the first. I'm on the frontline. I'm the first warrior in this battle. I'll do my best and do everything possible to get through to the final, even if it means dying on the pitch."
Skeptics will note that they've seen Neymar "dying on the pitch" several times a game, the oft-fouled Brazilian's screams even more notable without crowds in the stadia of Europe.
But the fact is that Neymar has been underappreciated for most of his career. Leaving Barcelona allowed him freedom from Lionel Messi's shadow but brought on criticism for joining an underappreciated Ligue 1 as well as the eventual spotlight share with Kylian Mbappe.
Perhaps his injuries and suspensions have led critics to overlook his contributions, as Neymar has not played more than 20 Ligue 1 matches in each of his four seasons at PSG and has averaged less than 2500 minutes across all competitions per season.
Still, he has 85 goals and 51 assists in 134 matches for PSG, and he's been influential in the decisive UCL moments.
- Had two assists in the first leg shock of Bayern in Munich
- Scored six goals in wins over Leipzig, Man Utd, and Basaksehir after PSG started the group stage with a win and two losses.
- Has 20 goals and 12 assists in 28 UCL appearances for PSG, a better return per game than his Ligue 1 numbers
- And his injuries really hurt him in the knockout rounds, pun intended, as he missed a decisive exit to Real Madrid in 2017-18 with a broken foot and both legs of the 2018-19 loss to Manchester United.
And forget advanced stats. There are only one or two players in the world who can claim to be at or above Neymar's influence.
When compared to forwards in Europe's top five leagues by Football Reference, Neymar ranks in the 99th percentile in shot-creating actions, progressive passes, progressive carries, and dribbles completed.
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KDB is a killer
One of the most lethal aspects of the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era of football is that there has usually one and only occasionally two spots in the top three for Ballon d'Or voting.
That means Kevin De Bruyne has never been on the podium, so to speak, an honor reserved for just eight players since 2010 (Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Franck Ribery, Manuel Neuer, Neymar, Antoine Griezmann, Luka Modric, and Virgil van Dijk).
That should've changed had the award been dealt out last season but may not even happen this season and almost certainly will not if Man City fails to make the UCL final given the seasons of Mbappe, Messi, and perhaps even Romelu Lukaku with the looming EURO.
What's wild is that three of those names — Xavi, Iniesta, and Ribery — made their Ballon d'Or credentials in Pep Guardiola's system and that De Bruyne is combining parts of all of their individual roles in his last few seasons.
Maybe some of this is the evolution of Guardiola's system and perhaps more the free reign given De Bruyne as creator at Man City, but there's no denying the output.
De Bruyne's per-90 numbers are different from last year's interstellar campaign, his xG up and his xA down, but consider this:
- He still leads qualified PL leaders (min. 1000 minutes) in xG+xA/90 (0.93).
- KDB's assists-per-90 over the last two seasons is better than Xavi's record-setting 2008-09 under Guardiola at Barcelona.
- De Bruyne has more shots-per-game, key passes per game, and assists this season than Ribery in 2013-14 at Bayern (Pep's first season there).
- Far from comparables in defensive responsibility, KDB is within 0.1 of Iniesta's 2009-10 tackles per game at Barcelona and is completing (and attempting) more passes than the legendary Spaniard.
He's also the Premier League leader in assists-per-90 and is 0.93 off of Bruno Fernandes' xA lead despite playing 900 fewer minutes. Only Harry Kane has more assists (13) than his KDB's 11, and the Spurs striker has played seven more matches.
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