When Barcelona agreed the deal to sign Neymar from Santos in 2013, the fans of the Brazilian club were distraught at losing the star who had brought them the 2011 Copa Libertadores, three Campeonato Paulista titles and Copa do Brasil glory in 2010.
Gabriel Barbosa – nicknamed Gabigol due to his prolific record in the youth ranks – was tipped as his natural heir, the club buying into his potential by handing him his debut on the same day Neymar bid farewell – a 0-0 draw against Flamengo in May 2013.
Despite the expectation on his shoulders, Gabriel has since blossomed into an instinctive, technically gifted striker – another success story of a youth academy that has helped produced the likes of Pele, Clodoaldo, Diego and Robinho.
The Santos forward is a different type of player to Neymar, more of a traditional striker than a play-making individual. He may be less prolific, but he has helped Santos win two successive Paulistaos and finish as runners-up in the 2015 Copa do Brasil.
And, having filled Neymar’s boots at the Vila Belmiro, Gabriel is now tasked with repeating the feat.
However, this time the stage is grander, the number of eyes on him greater. The 19-year-old will pull on the fabled Canarinho shirt and look to ensure Brazil do not feel the absence of his former team-mate – the international captain – too sorely at the Copa America Centenario.
With Barcelona only willing to release Neymar for either the Copa or the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the player opted for the latter, the chance to claim Brazil’s first gold medal after missing out in London 2012 too great of a lure.
Gabriel will subsequently vie with Hulk and Jonas, a replacement for the injured Ricardo Oliveira, to lead the line in the United States.
An unused substitute when called up as a replacement for the suspended Neymar, their careers intertwining again, in the World Cup 2018 qualifier against Paraguay in March, Gabriel made his senior international debut in Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Panama.
After replacing Jonas – the scorer of the opener – in the 64th minute, Gabriel marked his debut with a goal nine minutes later.
— CBF Futebol (@CBF_Futebol) May 30, 2016
A great first touch set himself up to shoot with his second, and he curled a cool finish into the far corner from the edge of the area.
With similar performances at the Copa, the Santos protege can step out of Neymar’s shadow once and for all.
His agent, Wagner Ribeiro, has suggested Gabriel could be an option for Paris Saint-Germain ahead of the next Ligue 1 campaign, while the player himself is unsure if he will return to his club after the competition in the United States.
A bid from Borussia Dortmund has reportedly been turned down since the end of the season and as links to Barcelona and Real Madrid continue to surface, now is the time for Gabriel to take his chance.
Indeed, Barca’s interest has been long-term – the club agreed to pay for the first option on the striker as part of the negotiations that resulted in Neymar moving to Camp Nou.
Impressive showings in the Copa could be what clinches Gabriel a big European move ahead of the 2016-17 season and the chance to carve out his own path from Neymar’s footsteps.
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