Football

Neymar auditions for Messi's crown

Neymar has two goals already this summer (©GettyImages)
Neymar has two goals already this summer (©GettyImages).

As the tournament progresses, so the excitement slowly builds.

What was first written off as a competition nobody wanted to see, played by professionals who didn't really want to play, has slowly blossomed into a thoroughly enjoyable tournament.

Admittedly, the attendance figures for some of the group games, the Uruguay versus Senegal's or the Egypt versus Belarus's, may make for uncomfortable reading for London's organisers, but 85,137 thrilled spectators turned up to witness Team GB's first Olympic win since 1960 on Sunday night.

Stuart Pearce's side now only have to avoid defeat against Uruguay to progress to the knock-out round, and with world champions and Euro 2012 winners Spain out of the competition, Team GB will fancy their chances of medalling.

Of course, the main obstacle between Ryan Giggs and a gold medal remains Brazil - led by the mercurial, masterful Neymar. The Brazil starlet arrived to these Games as a fully-fledged 20-year-old superstar, and his performances so far haven't disappointed.

The YouTube clips hint at the skill, the flicks, tricks and moments of magic, but you don't fully appreciate the Santos star until you watch him within the context of the match.

The fast feet, dizzying stopovers and flamboyant backheels are all still there, but the passing, movement, awareness and finishing are to the highest order as well.

Perhaps, in another league, away from Brazil, Neymar would be stuck out on the wing, his indulgent flicks deemed too needless, too extravagant, to merit a main strikers role.

But to play him out wide would blunt his goalscoring instincts, which when combined with his unbridled imagination, make him one of the most unique, and most dangerous, attackers in world football.

Against Belarus at Old Trafford on Saturday, Neymar chalked up two assists and scored a memorable free-kick, the type of which David Beckham would have been proud despite a fairly inconsistent display overall.

In case anybody didn't realise how big of a challenge it will be to wrestle gold for the prised hands of Neymar, surely the realisation dawned upon them on Saturday. And it's by no means just the Santos forward. With Lucas Moura, Oscar, Ganso, Hulk and Leandro Damiao, Mano Menezes' side were always likely to have their opponents dancing to the beat of the Samba drum.

And on Saturday, it was new Chelsea signing Oscar who conducted the percussionists. The Internacional playmaker, reportedly a £25m signing for the Stamford Bridge side, was a constant threat, always looking for the ball, and more than often proving decisive when receiving it.

His goal came after a magical piece of trickery from Neymar. Nutmegging an opponent with a header is not easy feat, but Neymar eased past his Belorussian opponent, backheeling the ball to Oscar who slammed it home.

Against Egypt, Brazil almost let a 3-0 led slip, and Menezes' side allowed Belarus to take an early lead this time around. Such frailties will be disconcerting for Menezes, but his young charges showed excellent powers of recovery.

With Spain out of the picture, the road to the final looks smooth for Neymar and co. The Iberians have conquered all before them in a remarkable four years since Euro 2008, but this summer proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

Perhaps, more worryingly their failure this summer hints at a potentially rapid decline from the heights scaled by the generation of Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta and Xavi.

All good things must come to an end, and for Spain, each passing year brings them nearer to that point where replacements must be found and transition must inevitably begin. On this evidence, their replacements will not be quite the all-conquering pass masters their predecessors proved to be, but the majority are still under 22, and there is time yet.

For Team GB, knocking out Uruguay wouldn't just ensure progression into the knock-out round, it would eliminate another tournament favourite. With Spain out, Team GB, Uruguay - led by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front - and Brazil are the three to beat and Stuart Pearce will be pleased to see his side slowly but surely warming up. From the lacklustre performance against Brazil, Team GB have steadily improved.

Japan and Mexico have also impressed, as have Senegal, but the big three would not fear coming up against any of these nations.

What they do fear is Brazil. With a World Cup on home soil looming ominously in the distance, this latest crop of superstars is poised to face the pressure and expectation of landing a historic sixth trophy.

And this summer is an excellent warm-up. Brazil have never won an Olympics, and their bitter rivals Argentina have won the last two, so the pressures on in London. With Lionel Messi out of the picture this year, Neymar has the stage to himself, and Brazil are odds-on to take gold.

They've started well, and were surely thrilled to watch their nearest rivals for gold crash out in the groups.

In their audition for World Cup places, several have proved to be stars of the show already. It's not easy to live up to the hype, especially when your the heir to the World Player of the Year crown, but Neymar has managed it, along with Oscar and Lucas Moura.

Four years ago, Lionel Messi won gold, going on to become a three-time World Player of the Year. This summer, Neymar has the opportunity to begin the same journey.

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