Brazil star Neymar continues his PSG rehabilitation process
Two match-winning strikes in Ligue 1 have started to heal the wounds between player and club after a summer of turmoil
Imagine, for a minute, a Paris without Neymar. It’s what Paris Saint-Germain, the French champions, were obliged to envisage for some of the summer.
It’s a condition some in the club’s hierarchy ended up privately welcoming. But, put bluntly, a PSG without Neymar right now would have put them in a rather unfamiliar place in the Ligue 1 table.
PSG are top going into Wednesday’s seventh matchday of the season against Stade de Reims, on 15 points.
Take away the goals from their last two league fixtures, and they’d be on 11, struggling to be in the top three.
Neymar, in his first and second appearances of the club season, scored in both their last two games, both strained 1-0 wins. He delivered victory in the 92nd minute against Strasbourg, and in the 87th on Sunday at Lyon.
Neither goal was a tap-in. His improvised overhead volley defeated the stubborn Strasbourgeois; an intricate, skilled and determined wiggle through a thicket of Lyonnais markers made the difference at the weekend.
This was Neymar doing just what a superstar is paid handsomely for: picking a lock with moments of individual brilliance, moments that can almost forgive the months of bolshy, indulgent pressure he applied to try to force a transfer to Barcelona over the close-season.
Once the other stars of PSG’s abundantly-staffed attack are back fit again –Kylian Mbappe is expected to have the all-clear for tonight, and Edinson Cavani is on the mend – PSG may no longer look quite as Neymar-dependent as they did in their last two Ligue 1 outings.
And the buoyant optimism generated from a week ago, when they thrashed Real Madrid 3-0 in the Champions League, with no Neymar (suspended) or Mbappe or Cavani, is strong evidence the Brazilian is not the sole saviour in their ranks.
But he is important to PSG’s ambitions, and far too cute to allow the surly posture he showed in July to accompany him on to the pitch.
The rebel summer has made him enemies in the stands at the Parc des Princes, but the goals are a slow cure.
On Wednesday, he should expect to hear some home fans’ antipathy towards him, the wantaway icon, but less shrill than it was before kick-off against Strasbourg, his first game of the season. He may see fewer banners in the stands condemning his disloyalty.
A departure, 10 months from now, is still on his agenda. But Neymar is smart enough to appreciate that his ambitions to move away, to a club and to a league he holds in higher esteem than France’s top division, needs to be backed up not only with regular evidence of his world-class ability, but also conformation that his prima donna tendencies can coexist with maximum endeavour.
The showman 'Ney' will never be muted. After his goal against Strasbourg, Neymar wanted to celebrate, but celebrate in a trademark way, with a gesture for the cameras. “Where’s the ball? he asked.
He had scored with his back to goal, so had lost sight of it. He retrieved a ball from behind the goal, nestled it under his shirt, put his thumb in his mouth. The goal was his baby; Neymar was the daddy in Paris once again.
Against Lyon, there was defiance in his match-winning strike. Moments earlier, taking a corner, various objects had rained towards him, thrown from the stands by Lyon loyalists.
Hostility from crowds is a fact of life. Last month it appeared to be coming from come colleagues, too.
At the celebrations after PSG had won the Champions Trophy, the season’s curtain-raiser, Mbappe, half-joking but quite forceful, pushed Neymar out of the frame when the formal photos of the winning players was to be taken. Neymar, not in kit, had not taken part in the match.
Team-mates have gleefully thronged around him after his last two, crucial goals. The important optics now will be of a happy co-habitation with Cavani, with whom he has had public fall-outs, with Mbappe, and indeed with Mauro Icardi, the striker new to the club on loan from Inter Milan and with a role to define for himself in the crowded roster of attacking stars.
Most important of all, the rehabilitation of Neymar needs a manager who is firm, but sensitive to the delicate politics of the player’s fractured relationship with the club.
A boss who makes it clear he has no time for some aspects of Neymar’s exceptionalism, while acknowledging his exceptional ability.
“He is Ney,” said Thomas Tuchel, PSG’s manager, ahead of the Reims clash, almost affectionately. “He is always decisive. But he can still do better. He’s not yet 100 per cent, but he’ll get back to his best."
Updated: September 25, 2019 10:00 AM