‘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
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.