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Neymar takes centre stage for PSG with Mbappe in race to be fit for Champions League

13:19 GMT+4 11/08/2020
Neymar PSG
The World Cup winner is in a race against time to be fit for Wednesday's quarter-final, meaning the world's most expensive player takes the spotlight

For two seasons running Neymar was forced to watch in frustration from the sidelines as Paris Saint-Germain's Champions League dreams went up in smoke in his absence.

Now, though, the boot is on the other foot. With virtuoso strike partner Kylian Mbappe fighting his way back from injury, the Brazilian bears the burden of the club's hopes to win a competition which has become a near-obsession for those in charge at Parc des Princes.

Long before landing in Lisbon to dispute this improvised final Champions League stage, PSG knew they would be facing Europe's best without at least one third of the attack that has terrorised French football over the past few seasons.

Edinson Cavani declined to sign a short-term extension to his expired deal at the club, pulling down the curtain on a spectacular seven-year spell which yielded 200 goals and six Ligue 1 titles.  That loss was followed by an ankle injury for Mbappe sustained in PSG's Coupe de France title victory in July, the side's first competitive game for more than four months.

At that stage it appeared that of a strike duo of  Neymar and Mbappe - which has smashed 160 goals together for the club - the Brazilian alone was guaranteed to start Wednesday's quarter-final against Atalanta in Lisbon.

While Mbappe has made a swifter recovery than first predicted – coach Thomas Tuchel initially stated it would take a “miracle” for him to make the cut against the Italians – PSG might opt against risking their young star for a full 90 minutes. A place on the bench appears probable, leaving Neymar to take centre stage in attack alongside Mauro Icardi.

That starring role will be welcomed by the striker, who must be relieved to have avoided a repeat of the metatarsal nightmare that ruled him out at the last-16 stage in both 2017-18 and 2018-19. The PSG curse when it comes to tiny bones in the foot has not quite passed, as Tuchel fell victim to such a fracture this week but even the trainer must be relieved such a misfortune came to him and not his star, so sorely missed in campaigns past.

Neymar, with reports of bitter feuding with the German behind him and fears about his form and fitness after installing himself in a plush Rio mansion to see out the Covid-19 lockdown proving unfounded, insists he goes into this unique knockout phase in the best shape of his life. "During these three years I have acquired a lot of knowledge," Neymar told PSG's  official website .

"I have lived through happy moments and difficult ones, especially when the injuries didn't allow me to play. With the help of my team-mates, I was able to overcome them and focus on what really matters, our performances on the field which translate into titles.

“Our fans, the club and all fans can see the fight of our team in any game. I am in my best form since I arrived in Paris, the team is like a family.

"We want to win the Champions League title. We will fight because we have never been so close."

Undisputed kings of French football, PSG remain starved of triumphs at continental level. The side's agonising victory over Borussia Dortmund back in March - in which Neymar played a starring role, hitting the net in both legs to pull his team through -  brought an end to three consecutive last-16 eliminations, but they are still yet to reach the semi-finals since Nasser Al-Khelaifi took over as president back in 2011.

For all the immense riches brought to Parc des Princes, the club have nevertheless been left to rue injuries to a few crucial players, a pattern that threatened to continue this season when Mbappe limped off in July.

Champions League failure has caused a succession of coaches to either face dismissal or fall on their own swords. Tuchel could well be the next should he fail to see his charges past the ever-dangerous Atalanta but there is also ample room for optimism inside the Parisian ranks this time.

They might be hindered by the relative lack of playing time compared to their rivals; Ligue 1 concluded early and they have played just twice, in the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue finals since late-March, but PSG have benefited from an undeniably kind draw in this decisive Champions League phase.

Should they make it past the Italians the club will face either RB Leipzig or Atletico Madrid in the semis; fierce opponents, of course, but somewhat less formidable than heavyweights such as Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Barcelona on the other side of the draw.

The road to the final seems more than accessible this time round, creating an opportunity PSG simply cannot afford to pass up.

Neymar will be crucial in those efforts. Atalanta have played with joyful, almost reckless abandon throughout the season, scoring 16 and conceding the same number in their eight Champions League outings to date.

Gian Piero Gasperini has made great strides in shoring up the defence since the start of the campaign, but the Bergamo side are still liable to leave big gaps at the back in their search for the net – making it imperative that PSG take advantage of those chances.

Over a single tie of 90 minutes Atalanta will see no reason to hold anything back, and that is the attitude Neymar must also embrace to get his side moving in the final third and pose a regular goal threat.

The Brazilian has endured rotten luck when it comes to football's biggest stage. Injuries robbed him of an appearance in a home World Cup semi-final back in 2014 and severely compromised his play four years later in Russia, with another physical issue leaving him a spectator once again as Brazil went on to win the 2019 Copa America at Rio's Estadio Maracana.

At club level it has been a similar story. “This time it took longer to sink in,” Neymar told Esporte Espetacular of the foot injury which in 2019 ruled him out of the tie against Manchester United, which followed an almost identical problem that left the striker sidelined 12 months earlier.

“I stayed at home for two days in bad shape, I just kept crying, I was really sad. The first time when I got injured I said, 'come on, let's get moving, we'll operate now, we have to make the [2018] World Cup', I wasn't so sad then.”

On both occasions PSG were unable to overcome the absence of their world-record signing, falling to Real Madrid and then United to continue their unimpressive run in European competition. This time, though, there will be no excuses, for the club or for Neymar.

The Brazilian finally has the chance to make his mark on the Champions League again as PSG's inspiration, and even if Mbappe fails to join him on the pitch or plays a marginal role the 28-year-old has the talent to prove just why he remains the most expensive and one of the most coveted footballers on the planet.