Monday 22 January 2018

Can Neymar put aside childish feud with Edinson Cavani to help PSG take advantage of a stale Bayern Munich

Paris Saint-Germain's Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani (L) and Paris Saint-Germain's Brazilian forward Neymar react during the French Ligue 1 football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Lyon (OL) on September 17, 2017 at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. (Photo by Mehdi Taamallah/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Paris Saint-Germain's Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani (L) and Paris Saint-Germain's Brazilian forward Neymar react during the French Ligue 1 football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Lyon (OL) on September 17, 2017 at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. (Photo by Mehdi Taamallah/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Miguel Delaney

For all that has been said about the internal politics of the Paris Saint-Germain team in the last week, it was still Neymar’s facial expression that said more than anything and that will likely provoke the most discussion before the much-awaited match against Bayern Munich on Wednesday.

Because, on the night last Sunday when he had his already infamous dispute with Edinson Cavani about who was taking the penalty against Lyon, the Brazilian very much seemed to want to bring the noise… if not quite add to it himself.

The Parc des Princes mixed zone is arranged in such a way so that selected players will walk through a designated area and, given the huge international interest in Neymar, he is normally and naturally one of those players. He was on that night nine days ago, and evidently agreed to walk through… but did not agree to speak to anyone. He instead just walked through with a very noticeable scowl on his face.

For those there, and some of those who know the Brazilian better than most, it felt like he merely wanted to show that disgruntlement. He also looked like a mere immature child in a mood.

Given that Neymar so conspicuously sat out the weekend’s 0-0 draw away to Montpellier with injury, Wednesday’s match against Bayern Munich is the first game when he will be back playing with Cavani, the first game after all that controversy and those eyebrow-raising claims in El Pais about the edgy state of the PSG dressing room.

So much attention will be paid to how the Brazilian star acts, whether any kind of show is put on.

It is also the club’s first truly big game after all the controversy and bombastic statements of their moves in the transfer market this summer, and thereby the one they’ve really been waiting for; the one where they've wanted their star attack to put on a different kind of show.

Along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, Bayern have been one of the Champions League’s three truly elite super-clubs in the last seven years, the standard-setters that almost always get to the semi-finals.

This match was then supposed to be the game that showed PSG were now at that standard after all that summer activity, that showed they could actually finally beat such sides and overtake them.

Victory could even have genuinely tangible consequence for the season, even in the relatively routine meaninglessness of the group stages for these clubs, because of how finishing first can so condition the rest of the Champions League campaign.

It would also offer the kind of symbolism that has genuine psychological effect on the PSG players.

All that summer activity has now added more layers of meaning to this game, since facial expressions and superficial interactions between players will likely be as pored over as much as the final result.

This could then genuinely be the biggest game of a group stage that desperately needs such bombast, and all the more so because Bayern are having their own problems.

They should be there for the taking, because they’re just not taking things to the same old level. Robert Lewandowski’s recent statements about the status of the club only fed into this feeling of flatness, but a lot of that is down to Carlo Ancelotti’s day-to-day coaching as much as Bayern’s grander decisions.

The Italian has won more European Cups than any other manager except Bob Paisley with three each, and is obviously greatly respected for that, but it has always run alongside what has been an underwhelming domestic record of just four titles despite working with some of the biggest clubs in the game.

It’s difficult not to feel that’s a reflection of how he works, and that Bayern are now suffering the negative side of it.

A very likeable figure, Ancelotti is seen as having the type of measured personality that can have massive effects in short-term knock-out games, but that isn’t really intense enough for the longer-term course of a modern season.

It is certainly a world away from the intensity of Pep Guardiola, and the more sophisticated coaching and ideas that the Bayern players had become accustomed to.

The current reality is that the German champions have all too quickly slipped from feeling like one of the most vibrant clubs and teams in Europe to one that is… a little past it.

It is little wonder that figures at the club are already said to be looking at the energy of 30-year-old Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann.

It is also still hard to say whether PSG are quite ready to take advantage of all that, though. If Bayern are past a peak, are the French champions anywhere close to it?

That makes Neymar’s apparent childishness even more important. Far from taking PSG up to the level of his own talent, it is instead as if his immaturity reflects the immaturity of the club as a proper European force.

There have already been denials regarding some of the media claims made about the dressing room, but even Neymar’s mood points to something relevant and genuinely impactful here.

Given his attitude to taking penalties alone, it would be impossible not to speculate that part of the reason he so willingly left Barcelona was because he had an issue with his own status as prince against Leo Messi’s as the obvious king - and whether he would ever get to usurp the Argentine.

If that is the case, it feeds into a genuinely important factor in how teams are built and leagues and Champions Leagues are won.

Messi is the king at Barcelona because he has more than earned it, and not just because of his talent as one of the best players of all time. He has applied it, and shown long-term leadership.

Neymar has the talent as one of the best players in the world, but hasn’t applied it in anything like the same way, or shown anything like the same leadership.

PSG have still rushed him into this role of king of their own team, risking resentment among their squad, especially as he seems to still be behaving like a spoilt prince.

This is also why established sides like Barca, Real and Bayern have remained ahead; why it is about more than super-wealth with them.

Sure, they have their own problems, but there is a hierarchy in their dressing rooms based on achievement and earned respect that conditions a discipline in their teams; that means they are more than a mere collection of stars.

It is precisely why Cavani was justifiably annoyed, because he felt he had earned the right to be the penalty taker.

It is also precisely why there remain so many questions about this PSG, why this game will potentially tell so much.

So much is on the spot - not least Neymar. How will he look when he steps onto it?

Independent News Service

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