Xavi Simons: Will the PSG wonderkid be able to live up to the hype?

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In the aftermath of Paris Saint-Germain's narrow 1-0 win over Caen in the Coupe de France back in February, most of the talk surrounded one major issue.

Despite the game coming just a week before PSG's meeting with Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League, Mauricio Pochettino had opted to start Neymar against lower-league opposition, only to see the world's most expensive player pick up an injury that would rule him out of facing his former club.

That the majority of the attention fell on one ex-Barcelona playmaker meant that a momentous day for another former Blaugrana attacker could have been overlooked.

Aged just 17, Xavi Simons stepped off the bench for the final 12 minutes at Stade Michel d'Ornano to mark his professional debut.

Given Simons produced little in his cameo, as well as Neymar's injury, on the majority of occasions his first-team bow would have just been a footnote.

But then not every 17-year-old footballer has well over three million followers on Instagram. Jude Bellingham, for example, only has 880,000.

As such, news of Simons' debut soon spread, meaning that within 24 hours of the game there were almost as many news articles written around the world regarding the Dutch youth international's appearance as there were reporting the news of Neymar's injury.

Ever since videos of Simons performing tricks as a nine-year-old went viral almost a decade ago, he has had to deal with the intense scrutiny that comes with being a child prodigy.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Xavi Simons (@xavisimons)

"I can still remember a game against Belgium," recalled Peter van der Veen, Simons' coach for the Netherlands Under-15s side, when speaking to Goal and DAZN in March. "People really wanted to see Xavi. After the game, 300 children were waiting in front of the team bus. Xavi needed security to get through the crowd.

"But he handled it very professionally. He was already extremely advanced for his age."

Born in Amsterdam and the son of former Eredivisie journeyman striker Regillio Simons, much of Xavi's footballing education was actuallly spent in Spain, rather than in his native Netherlands.

As a 10-year-old he was signed by Barcelona having previously represented amateur side C.D. Thader in Valencia.

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Instantly recognisable within La Masia due to his locks of curly hair, it soon became clear that he was also one of the most talented players within the Barca academy.

"He was extremely good," Van der Veen admitted. "I loved his work ethic.

"Often these extremely talented young players are not very hard working and think they can fend for themselves. He was completely different.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Xavi Simons (@xavisimons)

"It was impressive to see how hard he worked, even though there was already lots of attention on him."

"Of course, he was kicked a lot," Van der Veen continued. "But he always got up and kept playing without showing any emotion.

"I think that when you play at Barca as a child, you are just used to it."

Unsurprisingly, Barcelona fans began to get excited about the prospect of a player who was being categorised as a potential Lionel Messi replacement entering the first-team picture in Catalunya.

In July 2019, though, everything changed.

Having been taken on by 'superagent' Mino Raiola at the age of 14, Simons took the decision to leave Barca in search of pastures new two years later.

Chelsea and Real Madrid had both previously been linked with signing him, but it was PSG who won the race, tying him down to a three-year contract that is reportedly worth around €400,000 (£340,000/$475,000) per year.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Xavi Simons (@xavisimons)

Any concerns that such a salary and the added pressures that come with it would halt Simons' progress, though, were allayed by his first season in the French capital, during which he scored six goals and laid on four assists for the U19s side despite being just 16 himself.

That form saw Simons, who is something of a set-piece expert, earn a first call-up to the senior squad ahead of the 2020-21 campaign, and with a host of players ruled out of PSG's opening game of the season against Lens due to a raft of Covid-19 cases, Simons made the bench.

That proved to be the first of only two occasions in which the attacking midfielder was named in the matchday squad by Thomas Tuchel, but following the German's sacking and Pochettino's arrival in December he has become an almost permanent fixture around the first team, making his Ligue 1 debut against Strasbourg in April.

"He will not be an [Andres] Iniesta or Xavi, but he has the quality to be able to develop a career at the highest level," Pochettino told Onda Cero of Simons, who turned 18 just 11 days after his league debut.

"He is training very well, he has character, he doesn't get nervous when he has the ball and he reads the game well. His aggressiveness is important in developing a career at a club like PSG."

Van der Veen agrees, saying: "Of course he has the qualities for a professional career. He is already a professional.

"When you train as many players as I do, you get a feeling for players who have the potential to be successful. And Xavi has a great career ahead of him."

So what comes next for Simons?

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Xavi Simons (@xavisimons)

Reports in France suggest that sporting director Leonardo is keen to extend his contract past 2022, meaning that more first-team opportunities will likely be on the horizon in 2021-22.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing Simons, though, is quietening those who doubt his credentials.

Aside from just the Barcelona fans who call him out over his departure from La Masia, there is an online community who believe Simons is overrated and undeserving of the following he has accrued during his youth football career.

But while he may not reach the heights of the likes of Messi or Neymar, the signs remain positive in terms of Simons fulfilling his potential.

If he does, expect that huge number of social media followers to climb even higher than it already has.