It started as a whisper, developed into noise and finally manifested itself as arguably the biggest transfer saga of the 21st Century thus far.
It’s actually happening. Neymar is leaving Barcelona to join Paris Saint-Germain in a £196 million deal, shattering the former transfer world record. The 25-year-old accepted PSG’s contract offer yesterday and despite La Liga rejected his lawyers’ attempts to activate his buyout clause on behalf of the Parisians, the transfer is very much expected to go ahead.
Replacing the third best player in the world is no easy task, granted, but new Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde has identified four targets he feels is capable of living up to the task.
RealSport discusses which is the best of the four options.
1 Ousmane Dembele [Borussia Dortmund]
In terms of like-for-like, the tricky 20-year-old from France perhaps best fits the bill. Neymar has enshrined his time at the Camp Nou as a 'winger-striker,' a wide player capable of fulfilling the duties of a striker, but not necessarily a team's primary playmaker.
Dembele scored six and assisted 12 goals in the Bundesliga last season, demonstrating both his goal threat and creative capabilities. What stands out though, is his ability to beat a man. The Dortmund number seven completed 105 take-ons in 2016/17, ranking ninth overall in Europe's top five leagues.
Replacing Neymar is difficult, but Dembele would go some way to doing so. He stays wide, hugs the touchline and retains his positional discipline, before cutting in and wreaking havoc on opposition defences, very much how the Brazilian did.
2 Kylian Mbappe [Monaco]
The hottest property of the summer. Prior to Neymar's shock move, Kylian Mbappe was expected to eclipse Paul Pogba's transfer record with Monaco demanding a £130 million fee for the 18-year-old sensation. Real Madrid were the favourites, but with money to blow, Barcelona have emerged as contenders for the Frenchman's signature.
Mbappe is by no means the finished article as of yet and needs game-time, surrounded by quality players to continue his development. Given Madrid's current strength in depth, the Camp Nou might yet be Mbappe's best option as he's very capable of playing in the position Neymar vacated.
The teenager scored 15 Ligue 1 goals, and assisted a further eight, demonstrated both an eye for goal and intelligent decision-making. He might not be as skilful and tricky as Dembele, but Mbappe has excellent spacial awareness and knows where to be to get on the end of through balls and crosses. Lionel Messi's dream.
Question marks remain over his consistency and ability to play without a second striker in support, so signing Mbappe might require some tactical adjustments, but as a long-term replacement for Neymar with insanely high developmental potential, there aren't any better.
3 Philippe Coutinho [Liverpool]
Barcelona have reportedly already had two bids rejected for Neymar's compatriot and could well be enticed to make a third given the resources they'll posses by the end of the week.
Philippe Coutinho is a magician with the ball. He has wonderful technique and is a visionary on, creating 65 chances last season, the second-most at Liverpool, and assisting seven goals.
His dribbling skills allow him to navigate his way out of even the most constricted of spaces -he completed 71 take-ons- and he has an eye for goal, scoring 13 as the Reds' joint-top scorer of the 16/17 campaign.
However, there are stylistic differences between Coutinho and Neymar that might prove insurmountable.
Primarily, Coutinho is a wide playmaker, one that wants the ball at his feet, not a tricky striker hybrid that will make runs in behind the defence. This role is too similar to that of Messi, which may result in a void on the left flank for someone to make those runs that Neymar once did. A brilliant player, but perhaps not the one Barcelona need.
4 Antoine Griezmann [Atletico Madrid]
Manchester United was the expected destination for Antoine Griezmann this summer, but Atletico Madrid's transfer ban threw a spanner into the works, scuppering the Frenchman's potential move. Griezmann announced his plans to stay in the Spanish capital to not leave Atletico in the lurch.
However, Barcelona, like the Godfather, could make them an offer they simply can't refuse.
Perhaps Griezmann is their best bet at replacing Neymar? Formerly a left winger before deployment as a striker by Diego Simeone, he very much has the 'winger-striker' role under his belt. After spending the entirety of his senior career in Spain, Griezmann would waste no timing in adapting as he's well-versed in Spanish top-flight football.
The 26-year-old scored 16 La Liga goals last year, three more than Neymar, and assisted two fewer. He's a tricky player, capable of beating a man out wide before clinically finishing. Plus, he's developed wonderful appreciation of space and his experience allows him to time his runs in behind to perfection.
Maybe the most difficult to get, but the one that's most worthwhile...
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?