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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Neymar returns to Paris Saint-Germain duty with sideshow threatening to overshadow football

World's most expensive player has been publicly defended by Brazil manager and club teammates following numerous reports of his 'privileges' and antics. 

Reports have claimed Neymar, right, has not taken the training sessions of Paris Saint-Germain manager Unai Emery seriously. Charles Platiau / Reuters
Reports have claimed Neymar, right, has not taken the training sessions of Paris Saint-Germain manager Unai Emery seriously. Charles Platiau / Reuters

The statement was designed to clear the air. It provoked tears and as many questions as answers.

A week on from a stagey press conference Neymar held with Brazil’s manager, Tite, in which the world’s most expensive footballer was praised for his "character", French football remains on the lookout for signs of restlessness in the superstar who unexpectedly chose to make France his home.

Neymar returns to Ligue 1 action with Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday after an extended break, for international duty, and Brazil’s friendlies against Japan and England, and the two PSG games he missed – one suspended, one injured - following his red card in the ill-tempered draw with Marseille in October.

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His first 100 days as PSG’s totemic recruit, signed for €222 million (Dh959.45m) from Barcelona, have been nothing if not eventful. The sending-off, a rather brutal refereeing decision; a dispute on the pitch with his teammate Edinson Cavani over the right to take a penalty; 11 goals, plus nine assists in his 12 matches, and growing speculation that his relationship with PSG manager Unai Emery is fractious, that his status at the club brings with it a unique set of personal privileges uncomfortably like those of a prima donna.

Tite was the first of several to speak up for Neymar last week. He felt persuaded a statement was necessary after Neymar himself had complained about the way the media were making him out to be an awkward, spoilt colleague.

“People said when I became Brazil coach, ‘How will he work with Neymar?' We had been on opposite sides may times, and clashed, in club football," Tite said. “Well, I have worked with Neymar now for a year and a half. If he has a problem he talks about directly, as I do. He doesn’t seek out popularity, and he has a great heart.”

At which point emotion appeared to overcome Neymar, who was sitting beside Tite at that moment, facing cameras in the press conference after Brazil’s 3-1 win over Japan in Lille. He bent down, as if to conceal his tears.

All of which left others to offer interpretations of another chapter in the Neymar sideshow. Kylian Mbappe, the PSG teenager preparing to carry the tag of the world’s second most expensive footballer when his loan from Monaco becomes permanent next year, offered this: “Neymar is human, like all of us. He can be affected by criticism.”

And from Julian Draxler, supporting act at a PSG overcrowded with attacking talent, this: “A lot of inaccurate things are said about Neymar. He’s got a lot of respect. He has some privileges at PSG. Maybe he asked for them. But he has that right, and there is no jealousy towards him.”

It is certainly in Tite’s interest that Neymar finds contentment at PSG, now the home to four members of Brazil’s likely squad at the World Cup – Dani Alves, Marquinhos and Thiago Silva – and so superior in personnel and budget to the rest of Ligue 1 that, approaching a third of the way through the season, they have dropped only four points and are averaging more than three goals per game.

If Tite’s Parisian Brazilians can cruise through some weekend afternoons, in easy fixtures, all the better for their fitness come June in Russia.

As for Neymar’s club manager, reports that have Neymar allegedly distracted during Emery’s team-talks, and not stimulated by his practice sessions are unhelpful. They not terminally damaging as long as the club continue to be as successful in the Uefa Champions League, where PSG have four wins out of four so far, including a 3-0 dismantling of German champions Bayern Munich.

But nobody is holding their breath for Emery to give the sort of avuncular, tear-jerking statement of admiration that Tite devoted to Neymar in Lille.

Nantes, fifth in the table, are at the Parc des Princes on Saturday, and bring with them a solid defensive record and their own medalled summer recruit.

That is their worldly manager, Claudio Ranieri, new to French football and distinguished by his achievement at Leicester City in 2016, when he, the former Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan manager, won a remarkable Premier League title.

Nantes will not be doing a Leicester in France. Nor, on the evidence of PSG’s waltz to the top of the table so far, will anybody else.