Thursday, May 26

Resolving the Neymar issue is crucial for PSG’s fate in the Champions League | Neymar

TThe same procedure as last year? The same procedure every year. But for how long? At some point, Paris Saint-Germain will win the Champions League and the world can stop wondering if this could finally be their season. And so we go through the familiar gibberish and ask, could this be? Could the stars have finally aligned? Could PSG have finally found the right balance between coach and star players?

Certainly the 4-1 win at Barcelona in the round of 16, arguably their best performance in the Champions League, suggested they could do it. At that moment, the warnings go into action immediately. This is PSG, a club that has become used to freezing at key moments. This is PSG, who have won seven of the last eight French league titles and made four triples in the last six years, who are not used to being challenged at the national level and therefore tend to give in under pressure in Europe (it may be that the battle at the top of Ligue 1 this season helps them). This is PSG, synonymous with extravagance and excess.

Mauricio Pochettino
Mauricio Pochettino must find a way to prevent Neymar from falling too deep and disrupting PSG’s form in their Champions League quarter-finals. Photograph: Franck Fife / AFP / Getty Images

The draw really hasn’t been kind. If they beat Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals (the first leg, with Robert Lewandowski absent with a knee ligament injury, is on Wednesday), they will face Manchester City in the semi-finals, assuming Pep Guardiola’s team beat Borussia Dortmund.

But the biggest problem, perhaps, is something more fundamental. PSG, more than any other club, represents the tension that lies at the heart of modern elite football. On the one hand, the game is more systematized and complex, more dependent on the construction of a cohesive unit, than ever. On the other hand, he has never been so obsessed with celebrity and the importance of promoting the brand.

If there were doubts about the priorities of modern directors, and there really shouldn’t be, they must have been extinguished by the dispute over the reform of the Champions League. The Swiss system is over and the allocation of two places based on the Uefa coefficient instead of the actual rating is any sense of sporting merit, from a football match to a competition between two teams for the prize of victory and victory. progression, and in its place is content. production: a turgid stream of income-generating games without much consequence.

That’s why there are still those at Juventus who insist that the monstrous investment in Cristiano Ronaldo was worth it. Given that he was hired to win Juve the Champions League, and with him they have only won one tie with him in three seasons, his signing may have been a failure in football terms, but in terms of exposure for the brand, perhaps it has. been. it’s worth it. Perhaps it also explains Juventus’ decision to appoint a stylish former player whose presence helps promote the club, Andrea Pirlo, as coach rather than someone who actually had coaching experience.

For PSG, those problems come down to Neymar. He was hired for a world record rate as a conscious declaration of intent. That he was the sun at the center of PSG’s solar system was clear from the way the club briefly changed its away uniform to Brazilian yellow and the various privileges that were bestowed on him. It may be that for income generation it makes sense. But for creating a coherent team structure, it is not.

Indulging in a star may be enough to win national titles, but at the highest level, for now at least, it’s not enough, as Juve’s struggles with Ronaldo and recently Barcelona’s Lionel Messi make clear. Mauricio Pochettino’s job is to reconcile celebrity and system, something he demonstrated beyond Unai Emery and Thomas Tuchel, even if a favorable draw helped them reach the final of the Champions League last season.

It should be noted that the February victory in Barcelona came without Neymar. Pochettino could seat Idrissa Gueye and Leandro Paredes in midfield, with Marco Verratti (doubt due to injury Wednesday) growling right in front of them, and with three forwards from Moise Kean, Mauro Icardi and Kylian Mbappé, safe in the knowledge that they don’t. He only offered a potent threat at half-time, but could be relied on to hold down Barça’s sides.

Can you trust Neymar in the same way? It is not a problem of laziness or lack of application. It’s not that Neymar doesn’t bother to do the job, or that, like Messi, aging legs prevent him from doing so. Old smugness still flickers occasionally – he was sent off for the second time this season against Lille on Saturday. But really, if anything, the problem is that you take the need to win too personally, you take too much burden on yourself.

Neymar and Kylian Mbappé celebrate Paris St-Germain's second goal against Atalanta
Neymar (left) and Kylian Mbappé celebrate Paris St-Germain’s second goal against Atalanta as the Brazilian sank deeply, disrupting the team’s form as it looked to start the comeback. Photograph: Reuters

That’s a flaw that has always existed in football: we are quick to praise a player transforming a solo game (see David Beckham against Greece in 2001) but judging when is the right time to exit the system and enter the El spotlight is enormously difficult (see Beckham’s numerous subsequent games for England).

Although Neymar was considered to have played well in last season’s Champions League final games, and was excellent against RB Leipzig in the semi-final, there were moments in the narrow quarter-final victory over Atalanta where he fell heavily. deep, disrupting the team’s form as he looked to start the comeback. By the end of the finale, his frustration was clear.

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Bayern’s performance in that game demonstrated the paramount importance of form. The thought beforehand was that his high line could be vulnerable to Mbappe’s extreme pace, but in the case, the compact nature of his midfield made that never become a problem. Whether Neymar could ever play for such a disciplined team is debatable.

Pochettino’s task is to find the right balance. Bayern have not been as solid defensively this season and without Lewandowski, the model of a leading center forward in the press, they are clearly diminished. This is an opportunity for PSG; how Pochettino is able to deploy Neymar, to reconcile those competing impulses of the modern game, will go a long way in determining whether they can take it.

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