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Ligue 1 Review – Week 21

On Wednesday evening at the Parc des Princes, Neymar spent the match terrorising a Dijon side who looked decidedly underwhelming. Having missed a nervy win over Nantes at the weekend, the Brazilian was perhaps overly eager to re-state his ability, and he wowed the crowd on a chilly evening with four goals and two assists. The last of these goals, though, has already earned the winger more than his fair share of scrutiny.

Edinson Cavani, Paris Saint-Germain’s leading scorer on the season, had already himself scored once in the match, on twenty-one minutes, heading home from Angel Di Maria’s cross. That goal marked 156 in all competitions for the capital side, equalling a record held by his erstwhile teammate, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With just under ten minutes left and PSG leading 7-0, the striker was brought down in the box by a clumsy challenge from Cédric Yambéré, and the crowd voiced their excitement as match official Olivier Thual pointed to the spot.

Rather than Cavani breaking the Swede’s record, however, Neymar strode over to the ball and picked it up, placing it on the spot to whistles from the crowd. He duly converted, making him the first player to score four in Ligue 1 since Cavani in September 2016, but he was hardly given a hero’s welcome. Despite a consummate performance from Neymar, the whistles continued after ninety minutes, although the Brazilian hardly seemed chagrined by this reception.

Cavani was quick to take to social media after the match, offering platitudes of togetherness, but the striker has already had a run-in with Neymar once this season, the so-called “penalty-gate” incident of early autumn. At a time when Cavani’s standing in the team, at least internally, is already under fire after Thiago Silva offered some rather harsh words on the Uruguayan’s late return from the holidays, could this be further evidence of a real rift in the leaders’ squad? And if so, could it yet hinder their lofty ambitions this season, particularly in Europe?

After all, PSG have been down the road of a selfish player controlling (or worse, dividing) the dressing room before, in the form of Ibrahimovic, who, along with Silva, exerted an outsize influence within the club. Their effect could be felt seemingly everywhere, from the exits of players like Christophe Jallet and Mamadou Sakho to decisions to limit the playing time of the likes of Lucas Digne and Marquinhos in favour of the pair’s preferred partners. Unai Emery seems to have largely curbed that sort of cronyism, and the likes of Presnel Kimpembe, Yuri Berchiche and Adrien Rabiot are evidence of the Basque choosing his side on merit and not on name.

Still, though, while Ibrahimovic (and Silva, who has largely been muted compared to seasons past) did perhaps have a part in limiting PSG’s success, the team’s failures in Europe were largely down to a limited squad. This season’s side, save perhaps defensive midfield, where Thiago Motta is aging and injury-prone and Giovani Lo Celso, who was particularly impressive last night, is still relatively untested, looks much more balanced and capable, especially going forward. Kylian Mbappé has undoubtedly been a big part of that, but the real difference this season has been Neymar, but for all his prodigious gifts, could the world’s most expensive player become as equally contentious a presence as Ibrahimovic and Silva?

Looking at the statistics, one is inclined to say not; one can see that nearly half of Neymar’s eleven assists in the league this season have been to Cavani, and the Uruguayan, not his feted teammate tops Ligue 1’s scoring charts. However, while Cavani has seen desperate to promote an image of unity within the squad, Neymar has continued only to focus on himself, charting the course of self-promotion that spurred his move out of the shadow of Lionel Messi. If Ibrahimovic’s white whale was the Champions’ League, Neymar, having already won that honour with Barcelona, is set on winning the Ballon d’Or.

Whether the player’s goal is compatible with that of the team (one must think that at anything short of the semi-finals of the Champions’ League will be considered a failure by the club’s hierarchy) remains to be seen, but the pressure in that regard will now be brought to bear not on Neymar, but on Emery.

Where previous managers at PSG have often seemed cowed by the extraordinary power players seem to have at the club, the Spaniard seems less intimidated by his charges, his team selection more of a meritocracy, and his ability to make his players see themselves as part of a system, rather than superior to it.

However, the question now becomes whether Emery can handle this rift which has seemingly reared its head once more. He has so far, the elimination by Barcelona aside, impressed, developing the team’s younger players and coping with the demands of fixture congestion with consummate ease.

However, despite his myriad of achievements, he has never been faced with this sort of clash of egos before. While it must be said that he has worked with talented individuals in the past, his real skill has always seemed to be at making a squad exceed the sum of its parts. At PSG, he is now faced with a rather different task, that of creating harmony among truly world-class players, at least so far as the public and opponents are concerned. If he can strike the right balance with Neymar, the Champions’ League remains a realistic goal, but if not, a stultifying end to the season, and to Emery’s spell in charge, surely awaits.

 

1 | Angers’ sterling promotion season in 2015 was defined by their defence. Third at Christmas that year, they boasted the second fewest goals conceded behind PSG while centre backs Romain Thomas and Ismaël Traoré proved to be as dangerous at attacking set pieces as they were competent defending them. The 3-1 win over Troyes on Wednesday night was reminiscent of that bulldozing, powerful Angers as Thomas’ brace, assisted on both by set-piece master Thomas Mangani, dragged them out of the bottom three. With the commanding influence of keeper Ludovic Butelle reinstalled after two years in Belgium, Angers are starting to look like the team that no one wanted to play once more.

2 | St Étienne are a shambles. The 3-0 humbling at bottom club Metz on Wednesday evening was the latest low point in a miserable season. The club have failed to recover from Oscar Garcia’s resignation and the 5-0 derby drubbing by Lyon that instigated it, and the Europa League regulars are now in a real relegation fight. The club are as good as manager-less after rookie Julien Sablé’s removal due to lack of required qualifications saw the experienced assistant coach Jean-Louis Gasset takeover by default. The signings of Yann M’Vila and winger Paul Georges Ntep should in theory help solidify a shaky team but the black hole the has swallowed the team’s confidence and the club’s momentum has shown no sign of dissipating.

3 | What seemed to be the beginning of a Bordeaux resurgence may prove to little more than the hastily extinguished embers of Jocelyn Gourvennec’s reign, who was sacked this morning. A 2-0 home loss to Caen halted any momentum gained from the win at Troyes this weekend, the sending off of new centre back signing Paul Baysse perhaps the biggest blow for Les Girondins as their list of experienced defenders grows ever thin. With Malcom’s future increasingly unsure, their president seemingly softening his stance slightly on a sale this week, a harrowing season could yet get worse.

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