Comparing two young talents is always a difficult task for there are many factors that can influence the development of a player—it is not simply a case of who has the most natural skills and abilities. This is all the more prevalent when comparing players like Santos' Neymar with in-form AC Milan striker Stephan El Shaarawy.
We have simply never seen the pair compete on a level playing field given the differences in ability of their teammates, the leagues they play in and the length of time they have sustained their performance levels. So, just how do you decide which is the better prospect?
There can be no doubting that El Shaarawy's achievements this season have been phenomenal. Few players are able to make such an impact on a giant of the European game at just 20 years old, and Il Faraone deserves all the plaudits he is receiving for his recent form.
We are now in December and the former Genoa player shows no sign of letting up, having been involved in over 50 percent of his side's Serie A goals this season. He has overshadowed his more renowned teammates to top the Serie A scoring charts with 13 goals in 16 Rossoneri appearances—an incredible feat.
A month ago, the argument in favour of Neymar was simple—El Shaarawy had simply not shown these levels of performance over a sustained period. With each passing week, though, the Italy forward is doing his utmost to dispel that argument and prove that he is, indeed, as good as his record suggests.
His argument is getting stronger, but until his form is carried into a second season, there will be doubts over whether he is simply a flash in the pan. He had always been quick, agile and technically strong, but El Shaarawy must prove that he can maintain his clinical edge in front of goal.
So, what of Neymar? Like the AC Milan star, the Brazilian also generally lines up on the left side of a forward line—either in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation. But for now, that is where the similarities end. As good as the Italian has been this campaign, he has a long way to go to prove himself to be on the Brazilian's level.
The positives of Neymar's game are clear, so I am not going to dwell on them for too long. In terms of sheer talent, he has the potential to challenge the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for their crown. Instead, it is more important to dispel some of the myths that surround him.
The first and most commonly heard assumption is that he is "overrated" because he has only achieved in the Brazilian game.
It's an easy accusation to make, but is ultimately a lazy jibe considering the same people have been instantly wowed by many of those who have come from Brazil into the European game. And, while it may be true that Neymar will have to learn to adapt to the differing style of play in Europe, there has been no reason to suggest he could not.
For all the space afforded to players of his ilk in Brazil, it most certainly is not easy for them to succeed. At times, the punishment received from opposing defenders, particularly in the Copa Libertadores, verges on assault and referees are inclined to offer little protection. There are times when you would scarcely believe that these incidents could take place in the home of Joga Bonita.
To overcome this harassment and still produce the best goals and assist per game ratio of anyone in his league is a phenomenal achievement at his age—particularly given that he is playing in a Santos side that desperately struggled without him.
A year ago, aged just 19, Neymar carried his side to the prestigious Copa Libertadores title. To put that triumph into context, Brazil's best supported club Corinthians won their first title in their 100-year history earlier this year.
It is this weight of expectation that few others have to deal with at such an early age, and he has rarely disappointed.
It is in this light that accusations of him being a "YouTube footballer" whose skills do not correlate to end product, are even more bizarre.
Many games in Brazil's state championships are admittedly too easy for him, that is without doubt. But the sheer weight of goals and assists that Neymar has notched up in both the national championship and continental competitions must count for something. That is also before considering the 17 goals scored in 27 appearances at international level for Brazil.
There is no doubt that Neymar will eventually head to Europe and it will be at that time that he can place himself amongst footballing greats. But, the idea that his achievements matter less because he does not play in Europe is a conceited fallacy.
El Shaarawy is a fine player and, unlike Neymar, he is scoring his goals in one of Europe's big leagues. However, for consistency of return over an extended period, his record cannot compete with the Brazilian and, quite simply, he is not on the same level.
Despite their similar starting positions, they are very different players and, for the moment, it is the Brazilian who has more to offer in his all-around game. He can be both the finisher that El Shaarawy has shown himself to be, whilst also offering a creative presence outside the box that the Italian is yet to consistently display.
At AC Milan, the young Italian has achieved much this campaign and will doubtless go on to greater feats for both club and country. He is, though, still very much a young player whose feats are compared to the progress of his peers.
Neymar, though, has long since been judged as a senior player and been forced to deal with the pressure that in itself entails. He is no longer compared to the likes of Lucas Moura or Bernard, both of whom are the same age, but rather Messi and Ronaldo. That in itself is testimony to his talent.
It is no slight on El Shaarawy that he does not compare favourably to the Santos forward. The simple facts are that very few come close to Neymar in terms of either talent and achievements. Just to be compared with him, as it is to be compared with Messi, is a compliment in itself.
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