‘Hun­gry’ PSG fi­nally bring­ing the best out of Ney­mar on big­gest stage

The Brazil­ian has stopped ag­i­tat­ing for a move and taken his club into a long-awaited Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport | Football - By Ja­son Burt Chief foot­ball Correspond­ent

Last sum­mer Paris St-Ger­main took the ex­tra­or­di­nary step of analysing the data around Ney­mar’s per­for­mances and con­clud­ing that he was play­ing at only around 60 per cent ca­pac­ity for the club. Crit­ics will have sneered they were sur­prised it was that high. At the time PSG were grow­ing weary of the Brazil­ian’s life­style which, as one source put it, was more akin to that of a pop star than a foot­baller, while the ap­par­ent con­tin­ued ag­i­ta­tion to quit Paris and re­turn to Barcelona was grat­ing and dis­tract­ing.

It was a new ap­proach from PSG, sig­nalled by their pres­i­dent, Nasser Al-Khe­laifi, who gave a hard-hit­ting in­ter­view to France Foot­ball in which he said he “no longer wants to have su­per­star be­hav­iour” among the Gal­lic galac­ti­cos.

Al-Khe­laifi in­structed the new sport­ing di­rec­tor, Leonardo, on his re­turn to the club, to in­tro­duce a far stricter regime, with new rules – not least to help head coach Thomas Tuchel, who had been left to try to con­trol a pow­er­ful dress­ing room on his own.

An­other Cham­pi­ons League exit, los­ing in the last 16 to a weak­ened Manch­ester United last sea­son, had been the tip­ping point, and not least be­cause – yet again – Ney­mar had been miss­ing through in­jury. Up un­til this sea­son, in fact, the 28-year-old had played in only one Euro­pean knock­out match for the team he joined in 2017 for a worl­drecord fee of €222mil­lion.

The mood at PSG has changed dra­mat­i­cally. Fol­low­ing the last­gasp vic­tory over Ata­lanta last Wed­nes­day, in which Ney­mar starred, the club have reached the Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nals for the first time since the Qatari takeover in 2011, and the first time since 1995, with Al-Khe­laifi even declar­ing that the striker and Kylian Mbappe would “never leave”. PSG’s two su­per­stars were in­stru­men­tal in the come­back which the French cham­pi­ons hope will de­mol­ish the psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­rier which ap­pears to have af­flicted them in the lat­ter stages of this com­pe­ti­tion.

Al­though Al-Khe­laifi’s com­ments came in the eu­pho­ria of vic­tory, he ap­pears to have meant them. With Ney­mar and Mbappe, who is wanted by Real Madrid and also ad­mires Liver­pool, con­tracted un­til June 2022, PSG are de­ter­mined to se­cure both play­ers on new deals. “We have found Ney­mar in the last three months, he has changed a lot of things in the team. I felt some­thing spe­cial,” Al-Khe­laifi said.

Cer­tainly there is a sense at PSG that Ney­mar is fi­nally show­ing the lead­er­ship and ma­tu­rity they crave and has – at least for now – stopped ag­i­tat­ing over his fu­ture.

Tonight’s semi-fi­nal against RB Leipzig is one PSG feel they should win, es­pe­cially with Al-Khe­laifi be­liev­ing reach­ing the last four has been a sig­nif­i­cant step in chang­ing the “men­tal­ity” at the club and the per­cep­tion that they were a bunch of overpaid in­di­vid­u­als rather than a co­he­sive unit.

Tuchel, with Leonardo, has gone some way to achiev­ing that, al­though the re­al­ity is that had PSG gone out against Ata­lanta then he prob­a­bly would have paid with his job. Such are the mar­gins. Tuchel al­luded to the changes he has made – while pay­ing trib­ute to Ney­mar.

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