Neymar, once again, is a key piece of the puzzle for Brazil going into the World Cup quarterfinal against Belgium.

The internet can be a cruel place – somethign Brazil star footballer Neymar might be realising during the course of the World Cup in Russia. In the 22 days, the 26-year old has grown to become one of the most despised, trolled and perhaps, even “hated”, footballer in the world. After Brazil’s 2-0 win over Mexico in the Round of 16, Brazilian newspaper Globo ran the headline, “Neymar has charmed Brazil, but annoyed the whole world.”

The footballing fans, not a month ago, were worried whether the forward will be a part of the World Cup, with him being sidelined with a knee surgery. Now, most of them are cribbing everytime he falls down on the ground after a challenge. The antics and theatrics, the penultimate of which was seen during the last match, in which Neymar rolled around after a naughty little stamp on the left foot from Miguel Layun, has turned much attention from his football to his “acting”.

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— Ross Tucker (@Scienceofsport) July 2, 2018

The incident caused much debate with legendary Brazilian Ronaldo coming out to defend him. “The criticism is nonsense. I am against all these opinions you mentioned. I don’t think referees have been protecting him enough,” he said. Former England international Gary Lineker, in a tweet, wrote, “Neymar has the lowest pain threshold of any player in World Cups since Opta stats began,” in a tongue in cheek comment.

But amid all the criticism, even Lineker could not but help but admit that Neymar is a “stunningly good footballer”.

Neymar – The key piece

It has not been the best of starts for Neymar at this World Cup. But for a player who is returning to action after three months of intense physical rehabilitation, he was expected to bear a little ring rust. In spite of the hiccups, Neymar has scored two of Brazil’s seven goal so far. He also had the most touches (48) in the opposition’s penalty box, among all the players in the World Cup so far. Amid all the criticism regarding his selfish play, he did set up Robert Firmino against Mexico, rather than going for the goal himself.

Ironically, for the Selecao to not fall down against a strong Belgium side, Neymar would be the key player up front. The PSG star is currently averaging 91.5 touches at the World Cup, higher than any other Brazil player. But most of the touches have come away from the six-yard box, closer to the halfway line.

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If Neymar can spend a little more time up front and connect better with Jesus Gabriel, who is having a really quiet summer in Russia, he can become a real threat for Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany to tackle. Add the speed and accuracy of Philippe Coutinho to the mix and it is a recipe for disaster.

Neymar, also needs to play a little selflessly, and look to be more dependent on Coutinho and Jesus (or Firmino, who is likely to get a start), rather than attempting to go for glory himself.

Coach Tite knows the role Neymar plays for Brazil and he was quick to come to Neymar’s defense. “If you look, you see how much he’s been participating collectively, taking up the ball, taking up space. Sometimes in counters, I don’t always want them to counter like that, but there’s teamwork,” he said at the press conference on Thursday.

For Brazil’s sake, the fans would be hoping Neymar is listening to Tite’s words.

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