Neymar's first season as a Barcelona player has not met expectations, that much is fair to say. While that means nothing for his overall chances of success at the Camp Nou, it will be a concern for Brazil and head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari ahead of this summer's World Cup.
Ever since his breakthrough as a 17-year-old in 2009, Neymar has been seemingly destined for greatness and, indeed, was almost a shock late inclusion at the competition four years ago. Now 22, he is expected to be Brazil's leading light next month.
The 2014 World Cup is no ordinary tournament for the Selecao, however, with the event returning to Brazilian soil for the first time since 1950. On that occasion, they famously came up short against Uruguay in a game that has lived long in football folklore as the "Maracanazo."
The coming tournament is massively anticipated in his homeland, and Neymar is the man who is expected to play a defining role in coming glory. It is no ordinary pressure, made more difficult by a lack of form ahead of the event.
A Season of Relative Mediocrity
Anyone who says Neymar has played badly this season is considerably overstating the Brazilian's lack of form. He may not have set La Liga alight after his long-anticipated transfer, but he has not been terrible, either.
To most players, a return of 13 goals and 11 assists from 36 games in a season where he has had injury concerns would be regarded as decent enough. However, Neymar is not most players, and Barcelona have been no average club in recent years.
A double-figure return for both goals and assists is more than decent, but that is almost a minimum expectation for forwards at the Catalan club. Alexis Sanchez scored double the goal contribution of Neymar in La Liga alone this year, yet question marks are raised over his future.
What also doesn't help the Santos idol in his battle to be recognised as the brilliant player he can be is that Gareth Bale has helped rivals Real Madrid not only to a Copa del Rey final, but also within touching distance of La Decima—the club's much-craved 10th Champions League success.
In comparison, the Brazilian's season does not perform favourably. He was not supposed to be competing with the likes of Alexis and Pedro; this was a player supposedly destined to challenge the supremacy of Lionel Messi at Camp Nou. Given time, he may. As yet, though, he is nowhere near that level.
Indeed, the question of just how compatible the pair are remains. Neymar's best run of form in the campaign came at a time when Messi was injured; when he needed to step up. Together, the accusation has been that he is almost too keen to show subservience to the Argentine. He is at his best when he is the centre of attention.
That is not to say that Neymar is not a team player, but he is a showman. He craves the limelight. It will be interesting to see whether he is able to come to the fore to a greater extent next season, but that is irrelevant to Brazil this summer.
Why Brazil Need Neymar at his Best
Scolari has selected a Brazil squad containing some excellent attacking players, but the fact is that the squad are heavily reliant on Neymar for creativity.
Oscar is a wonderful attacking midfielder and is intelligent in his decision-making but would not often be described as a flair player. Bernard, meanwhile, has pace and trickery to supply from the substitutes' bench. That duo aside, almost all the burden to provide a spark of magic will fall upon Neymar's shoulders.
It is a risk Scolari is prepared to take. In truth, he is not overloaded with Zicos and Ronaldinhos to choose from. He could have selected the latter, but it is years since he last performed well in a Brazil shirt—it was never going to happen.
Neymar has shown he can take that burden for his country. He was excellent at the Confederations Cup last year, winning Player of the Tournament as Brazil swept past Italy, Uruguay and Spain en route to the title. That, though, was a mere audition for what is ahead.
The task is to keep up those levels over the course of seven matches in what will be the most intense atmosphere he has experienced in his career. At the very least, he must perform in the knockout stages when the pressure truly mounts and games are settled upon individual moments of brilliance.
Neymar won over most of his doubters at the Confederations Cup, but he now faces another challenge to prove that he can perform when it really matters. As the undisputed leader of Felipao's side as an attacking unit, he cannot afford to pass up the opportunity.
The eyes of the world will be on him next month in a way that he has enjoyed thus far in his career. He has the chance to make true footballing history once more.
A Lesson from History
Does club form matter once a player pulls on their international jersey? It would clearly help if you arrive at a tournament feeling at ease with your game, but there have been plenty of players unable to transfer form between the two.
What of the likes of Shinji Kagawa? Hopelessly out of sorts with Manchester United, he continues to impress for Japan. The likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have, meanwhile, been (normally unfairly) accused of failing to perform for their countries.
International football is generally, with the exception of sides built around a nucleus of one or two clubs' players, an entirely different proposition. Neymar, at least, feels comfortable within the Brazil setup at present.
Indeed, we don't have to look too far into the past to see what can happen when a player or a team gain momentum at a major tournament.
Neymar himself arrived at last year's Confederations Cup woefully out of sorts. The first few months of 2014 had been his worst spell in a Santos shirt for a few years and he only visibly loosened up once his move to Barcelona was announced.
Still not at his best, he arrived at the tournament feeling his way into form in friendly fixtures. A stunning goal against Italy, though, was to prove the catalyst for a starring role throughout.
Good players—which Neymar clearly is (whatever your opinion of how just how good that may be)—do not lose their ability overnight. Form comes in peaks and troughs and often depends on other factors—such as the balance of the team around them.
A disappointing season with his club, therefore, should not be used as indication of how he will perform this summer.
What Can We Expect?
Brazil's players know the importance of the weeks ahead for their respective careers and will respond to that pressure in one of two ways. They will either pull together as a unit and thrive off the increased adrenalin, or they will collapse under the weight of expectations.
Scolari has built a tight squad as he looks to recreate the family spirit that helped him take his country to the title in 2002. On that occasion, he was able to count upon inspired form from the likes of Ronaldo and Rivaldo.
This time around, the Selecao have no stars of that magnitude. Neymar, Oscar, Fred and Hulk will form Felipao's attacking unit, but none boast the standing of the two leading lights of the 2002 attack at a world level. Perform in the coming weeks, though, and that is the level they would be elevating themselves to.
Neymar has the potential to do so in his career, as does Oscar. When they will do so, however, is an entirely different question. Despite their relative youth, the summer ahead will greatly influence public opinion in the coming years.
While Oscar could perhaps escape relatively unscathed were he to have a quiet tournament, Neymar is expected to star. If Brazil were to fail and he personally disappoints, he must brace himself for intense criticism—regardless of achievements to date. That is the reality of being a star.
Whether he performs to his best or not, his fitness and ability to cope with the pressure are more likely to be major factors than his club form. That connection, though, will inevitably be made if all fails to go to plan.
At his best, Neymar is good enough to be the best player in the world and will soon have another opportunity to prove his potential. Given his sense of occasion and craving for the limelight, it would be little surprise at all if he should come good at exactly the right time next month.