Move aside, Neymar - Mbappe is PSG’s superstar now

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The rise of the teenager seems unstoppable, while the Brazilian suddenly finds himself under question after a tough World Cup experience

When Edinson Cavani tried to claim the rights to a penalty from Neymar against Lyon just a matter of weeks into the Brazilian’s Paris Saint-Germain adventure, it led to a fit of pique from the younger man and an ugly on-field tug-of-war that was to define his first months in the French capital.

Now Neymar finds himself in the midst of an inadvertent arm wrestle for something greater than just the right to a free shot at goal from 12 yards; his pride is on the line as Kylian Mbappe threatens to usurp him as PSG’s superstar forward. 

When Neymar signed for PSG barely a year ago to become the world’s most expensive player with a price tag of €222 million (£200m/$264m), he was going to France to lead the club to the promised land of the Champions League, enhancing his own Ballon d’Or prospects by stepping out of the shadow of Lionel Messi.

It seemed impossible he would be overshadowed by some upstart teenager.

Yet on the eve of the 2018-19 season, he faces the prospect of being pushed away from the spotlight by a young man with only 104 senior club appearances to his name.

The rise of Mbappe has been a prodigious one, with the 19-year-old this summer completing his inevitable move from Monaco to his hometown side for €180 million, making him the second most expensive player ever, having spent last season in the capital technically on loan.

He enjoyed a promising first campaign in Paris, scoring 21 times and laying on 15 more in 46 outings, but it was at World Cup 2018 where his star was to truly ascend.

Mbappe was the outstanding offensive player of champions France, steaming into the spotlight thanks to a blistering last-16 display against Argentina and becoming the first teenager since Pele to score in the final.

Kylian Mbappe World Cup

Indeed, more than four months before his 20th birthday, Mbappe has a string of such ‘firsts’ to his credit and stands poised to take over from Neymar as his club’s leading attraction.

Make no mistake, the Brazilian proved the marketing coup that PSG hoped in his first season at Parc des Princes. Merchandise sales jumped 78 per cent, according to Le Parisien, with Neymar accounting for half the total of shirts sold by the club, twice as many as Mbappe. As such, he has widely been cited as the cause of a surge of interest in the Parisians, particularly in Asia, but a difficult start to 2018 suddenly sees his pre-eminence threatened more locally.

“It’s obvious that Mbappe has got something more than others,” new PSG arrival Gianluigi Buffon said earlier this week

The Italian should know, after all, it was Mbappe, then of Monaco, who ended his shut-out run of 600 minutes while playing with Juventus in the Champions League two years ago.

“When I spoke with Andrea Barzagli, one of my great friends, after the match, he told me: ‘Gigi, in 20 years of my career I’ve rarely seen such a fast player, someone who can run with the ball so far. I had a hard time stopping him',” the 40-year-old continued.

“Those words aren’t trivial because Barzagli, when he’s focused and fit, he’s a really great defender.”

Circumstances have certainly worked against Neymar. A foot injured against Marseille in February robbed him of his opportunity to shine at the business end of the season, though he still finished the campaign with 28 goals – one for every 96 minutes he was on the field.

It also meant that he was not properly fit for Brazil’s World Cup campaign, though in Russia, he succeeded only in tarnishing his reputation with a display of playacting the like of which has rarely been seen. In total, he spent 14 minutes rolling around ‘injured’.

Neymar Brazil Mexico World Cup 2018 020718

Fans turned savagely on the former Barcelona star, who for a month was found more regularly on mocking memes than he was on highlight reels.

“It’s nice if you have humour and he makes people laugh, as we have seen by all those things on social media!” Marco van Basten, the legendary Netherlands forward and a close associate of FIFA president Gianni Infantino said. “But for me, what I have seen from him is not a good attitude.

“As a player, you have to try to do your best and if you act too much it will not help you. He should understand his situation, personally.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg of Neymar’s apparent attitude issues, which became most dramatically apparent with that infamous clash with fans’ favourite Cavani.

He does not necessarily hold PSG’s match-going fans in the same thrall that has won him legions of followers around the world, and most notably in his homeland, where he continues to be shielded from criticism by the greats of years gone by.

“He is an intelligent player in his movements and on how to defend himself from being tackled. I don’t think referees have been protecting him enough,” argued Brazil great Ronaldo, ironically the player Mbappe has been most likened to.

“Criticism is nonsense. TV shows and newspapers just want to fill space.”

There was an inevitable clamour around Neymar when he joined up with PSG in China ahead of their thumping 4-0 Trophee des Champions victory over Monaco last weekend, but back in France he could discover a different atmosphere. Of course, he remains revered, but perhaps not to the standard he has come to expect.

Mbappe is now the darling of Paris. Having grown up in Bondy, he encapsulates the dreams of many children growing up in the banlieue. And he has not forgotten his roots; not only did he pay for a group of teenagers to follow his World Cup adventure, he donated his entire bonus for winning the competition to a local charity.

Now the fame of the former Monaco youngster is rapidly growing, with his performances in Russia promoting him to worldwide superstardom. 

His name is the one on the lips of supporters and critics ahead of the 2018-19 season, in which PSG will surely continue their domestic dominance amid a renewed challenge for the Champions League, which their two wide forward players are expected to spearhead.

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Neymar is no spent force, but having been for years hailed as the natural heir to Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi as the world’s greatest player, he suddenly faces a fight for supremacy in his own back yard. Pitted against a local favourite, it is certainly not a battle he is guaranteed to win.

What was supposed to be Neymar’s team now threatens to become Mbappe’s, and how the Brazilian reacts could go on to define not only PSG’s season but the Brazilian’s whole career.

This is not just a penalty kick at stake, it could be his whole legacy.

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