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Is Neymar Back at Year Zero?

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Neymar and Kylian Mbappe watched on in the stands as Paris St. Germain made light work of Real Madrid on Wednesday. The French side were like a well-oiled machine in that Champions League group stage against Los Blancos, looking like something they’ve never really looked like for most of the time – an actual team.

This win came without Le Parisiens’ expensively-assembled front three, with Edinson Cavani also unavailable through injury, like Mbappe. Neymar, meanwhile served the first of a two-match ban for his comments after PSG’s defeat at home to Manchester United. That loss against United, which resulted in elimination – via away goals – from the Last 16 for the third Champions League season in a row for the French side, will always be remembered for, among other things, Neymar’s expression when PSG conceded that stoppage-time penalty. That late spot-kick was the source of the Brazilian’s ire when he took to social media to rant afterwards, earning him his suspension.

And he watched on as his team looked in full flow in their annihilation of Real on Wednesday. His team. It’s still his team. For much of the summer, it looked like Neymar’s time was up in the French capital, a move back to Barcelona graduated from rumour and speculation to concrete might-happen material (there was also talk of him joining Real). PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi also spoke of ‘no more superstars’, stating an intention to no longer get big-name players, but committed players, in what seemed like a thinly-veiled stab at their most-expensive signing. If Al-Khelaifi meant his words, then he would have been pleased with the side against the record European champions. And that may be where Neymar comes in.

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Neymar watched on from the stands as PSG put three past Real Madrid in the Champions League (Image via AS)

The Brazilian is inarguably talented and capable of some extraordinary levels of football; in the past two seasons with PSG, he’s bagged 51 goals, all the more impressive when you consider that he missed about seven months combined in those two campaigns. But those numbers are a bit beside the point. It’s not really about the numbers, but about what Neymar does, and what he could do.

Since his arrival in Paris two years ago, Neymar’s football – however brilliant – continues to be littered with exasperating self-indulgence. There seems to be the need for him to be at the centre of everything, both on and off the pitch (The Neymar Show, as The Independent’s Jonathan Liew called it). The constant play-acting, the consistent ball-hogging, Neymar is the diva on the pitch. And that more than puts a dent in his game; PSG’s arguably most important on-pitch asset is also debatably their biggest on-pitch liability.

On Wednesday, it looked it, as the French champions functioned much better without him on the pitch. Without grandiose self-indulgence and limelight-grabbing. Without his footballing hedonism and sense of overkill. The kind of acts that were fascinating when he was the young up and coming sensation at Santos, but surely border on irritating at times these days. This also seems to be the case with the Brazilian national team.

At the 2018 World Cup, Neymar’s ridiculous play-acting and puerility dominated the spotlight throughout Brazil’s tournament before their exit in the quarter-finals, a defeat to Belgium, who exploited Neymar’s unwillingness to track back and help out the left-back to good effect (just as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Liverpool did against PSG in September last year). Brazil looked much more like a unit – both on the attacking and defensive fronts – at the recent Copa America (which they hosted and won).

Just as well, PSG looked much more like a cohesive in midweek, after a summer of smart recruitment and not outlandish outlay, a summer that suggested Al-Khelaifi’s words weren’t just for the sake of it – Idrissa Gueye, one of the new signings, has particularly impressed. Suddenly Neymar seems expendable, and his team’s big moments of triumph seem to come when he’s not there, to supposedly be the reason they don’t happen.

Perhaps the most exasperating thing is the fact that when Neymar buckles down and gets serious, he seems nigh-on unplayable. Against Mexico at last year’s World Cup, despite his tendency to play-act in that game, Neymar took the match by the scruff of its neck and wrote his name all over it. When Liverpool visited Paris last November, Neymar functioned as part of a team unit, in one of those rare cohesive PSG displays, and was arguably the best player on the pitch. It’s always a delight to see when he gets his head down and tries to be serious, which makes his reversion to immature spoilt diva all the more infuriating.

Neymar has returned to action with PSG this season, after a less-than-ideal summer, scoring that winner against Strasbourg last weekend. He’s likely to be on the pitch again this weekend, against Lyon, but his return hasn’t been met with cheers, the PSG Ultras have promised him an unwelcome reception, which they delivered last weekend, and they should do so again at Lyon at the weekend.

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PSG Ultras show their banner of discontent towards Neymar (Image: The Guardian)

The fans are sceptical – to put it mildly – the footballing world is starting to become aloof, and Neymar is starting to look expendable. It suddenly seems like, amidst the undeniable skill and talent, he has to prove to the world his professionalism and ability to knuckle down. Almost a decade after bursting into the spotlight, this feels like another Year Zero for the Brazilian. It seems like Neymar is facing a battle to not become the kid in football that never grew up, or at least wasn’t allowed to grow up.

Neymar has already acknowledged the fan hostility, having spoken last weekend of how every game at the Parc Des Princes will ‘feel like an away match’, and talked about not needing them to support him, but the team. Having urged the upset fans to put the team first, perhaps it’s time for him to do the same as well.

Kunle Ajao121 Posts

Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not

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