The injury sustained by Neymar means all eyes will be on the young French superstar, who has been thrust again into the limelight ahead of schedule
Paris Saint-Germain’s signing of Neymar last summer for €222 million gave cause for concern to the club’s Qatari higher-ups. Uefa, not long after the deal, announced an investigation into how PSG intended to meet break-even requirements as stipulated by Financial Fair play regulations.
Spending so much money without the relevant revenue streams elsewhere to cover it is always going to bring a club onto the financial radar and it was reported — post Neymar — that PSG’s squad was to split in two; transferables and untransferables.
Among those to ship out in order to balance the books were Lucas Moura and Blaise Matuidi. Also in the transferrable pile was Angel Di Maria until an intervention by coach Unai Emery offered the winger a stay of execution.
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Now he will get his chance to play from the start in the Champions League for the first time this season against the team with whom he won the cup in 2014 – Real Madrid. His place in the team comes at the expense of Neymar, convalescing following his high-profile foot injury suffered against Olympique Marseille a couple of weekends ago.
That injury, combined with first-leg defeat to Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu, is reckoned to have brought a certain amount of doom and gloom around Parc des Princes. Overturning a two-goal deficit against Zinedine Zidane’s team – so at home in the Champions League despite their domestic troubles – is a tough ask under any circumstance. But doing so without the world’s most expensive player and flagship signing is another thing altogether.
But PSG’s band of transferables and untransferables will now come together in an attempt to prove they are capable of achievement without the preening Brazilian in their ranks. It’s no secret that Neymar has been indulged by PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi since his arrival from Barcelona. He enjoys extended breaks between matches — one incident last month saw the 26-year-old given two days off for his lavish birthday party while his team-mates sweated it out in a Coupe de France game against Sochaux. Di Maria, for the record, got a hat-trick that night.
Neymar put Edinson Cavani’s nose out of joint earlier in the season by demanding primacy for penalty kicks. Tensions have been smoothed over in that regard but Neymar upset local fans by denying the Uruguayan the chance to achieve PSG’s all-time goalscoring record from the spot in a laughably one-sided game against Dijon in January. For better or for worse, there is no chance of Neymar taking any spot-kick away from Cavani this week.
PSG in ordinary circumstances could be reasonably assured of a positive outcome. They have not lost a match in Paris’s 16th arrondissement in about two years. They are defending a run of 19 consecutive wins at home and their Champions League form in their own surrounds is formidable.
Their last four games — a run stretching back to last season’s last-16 first leg against Barcelona — have yielded 19 goals and four victories. Barca, and Bayern Munich for that matter, have been swept aside. Di Maria was the architect of that brilliant night against Barca, scoring twice, and will relish the chance to restore his reputation in the competition’s highest-profile fixture.
Much too will depend on the man opposite him on the other flank. Kylian Mbappe, whose permanent signing from Monaco was deferred lest PSG suffer further at the hands of Uefa, is already earning a sterling reputation across the continent. Now touted as the world’s finest attacking prospect, Mbappe has wasted no time in demonstrating his potency on the biggest stage.
The 19-year-old has scored 10 goals in 17 Champions League games — being the youngest man to reach that 10-goal landmark in the process. Neymar was signed for the here and now with Mbappe marked out for a starring role in the future but he has made a habit of overcoming obstacles ahead of schedule. Now he is carrying the big burden.
If it were a race between them to see who might win the Ballon d’Or first, well, it could be seen as neck-and-neck. Not many prospects have ever begun their top-level careers with this kind of hype but the boy from Bondy is justifying it.
Madrid missed out on both Neymar and Mbappe at various points along their development path with options ultimately sought by their fathers and advisers elsewhere. Neymar missed his chance two weeks ago to show what he could do but now the onus will fall on Mbappe.
He, too, is not in the rudest of health. He missed the routine dismissal of Troyes in Ligue 1 as a few days before an ankle injury befell him. He asked Emery for a substitution at half-time after receiving a knock against Marseille – the very team against who Neymar suffered four days prior. That weekend rest should see him fit enough to start and to attempt to lead the comeback against the defending champions.
Last year it was Di Maria shining in the home leg against Barcelona while Neymar was very much the protagonist in the second leg comeback. Now is the time for Mbappe to show that he too can be the leader, the talisman, the spark, and that nasty Uefa business can wait until the end of the season.