Rivals defend Neymar after criticism for late-game antics
ABS-CBN Sports on Sep 21, 2016 09:59 AM
FC Barcelona's coach Luis Enrique, left, Gerard Pique, center, and Neymar attend a training session at the Sports Center FC Barcelona Joan Gamper in Sant Joan Despi, Spain, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
TALES AZZONI, AP Sports Writer
MADRID (AP) — Even rivals are coming out to defend Neymar after his late-game antics got him into trouble in the Spanish league.
The Brazil forward use his ball trickery in Barcelona's 5-1 win over Leganes last week, prompting a wave of criticism from people who accused him of showing off and trying to provoke opponents. Neymar appeared to ignore the un-written convention that top players should not make lesser opponents look foolish.
Three key former players who turned coaches supported Neymar on Tuesday, the day before Barcelona's game against rival Atletico Madrid.
"Neymar has fun playing football. They can criticize him as much as they want, but he responds where he needs to respond," Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. "He has his own style. He is an extraordinary player."
With the victory safely secured on Saturday, Neymar used back-heel passes and other nifty moves against Leganes defenders. He scored one of the team's goals in the 44th minute and was fouled inside the area — leading to a penalty kick converted by Lionel Messi in the 55th.
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said he didn't think Neymar was disrespecting his opponents.
"I don't think he is trying to provoke anybody," the former France midfielder said. "He can do things that not a lot of players can do. You would have to ask him directly, but I don't think it's a provocation."
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said Neymar's style shouldn't surprise anybody.
"He has been playing like this since he got here," Luis Enrique said. "And we want him to keep his playing like this, we enjoy it. He is allowed by the rules to do what he does."
Barcelona is bracing for another hard-fought match against Atletico Madrid.
The teams meet Wednesday in the first big game of the season in Spain — the first encounter between the clubs since Atletico eliminated Barcelona in the quarterfinals of last season's Champions League.
"There's never an easy match against Atletico. It's practically the same team that has succeeded in recent years, and it will continue to contend for titles," Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. "It's a direct rival. These are very important points that will be up for grabs."
Barcelona is second in the standings with nine points, three less than leader Real Madrid. Atletico is fourth, four points behind Madrid after four rounds.
Both teams have their top players available and are boosted by huge wins.
Barcelona was stunned at home by promoted Alaves two weeks ago but rebounded with a 5-1 rout of Leganes on Saturday. It also trounced Celtic 7-0 in the Champions League. Atletico began the league with consecutive draws but picked up the pace with a 4-0 win at Celta Vigo and a 5-0 thrashing of Sporting Gijon.
"We will need to defend very well because Barcelona has a tremendous offensive power," said Simeone, who has never won at the Camp Nou as a coach.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are expected to return to Real Madrid's starting lineup for the game against unbeaten Villarreal at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday. The Spanish powerhouse has a chance to set a record with its 17th straight league victory. Madrid is tied with Pep Guardiola's Barcelona from the 2010-11 season, which won 16 in a row.
"The record is nice and we will try to achieve it, especially because we want to keep adding points," coach Zinedine Zidane said.
Madrid is the only team to have won all four matches to start the league and has a three-point lead over Barcelona and Las Palmas.
Ronaldo and Bale were rested in the team's 2-0 win at Espanyol on Sunday after a hard-fought 2-1 win over Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League.
Zidane will not be able to count on defender Pepe because of a knee injury sustained at Espanyol.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni