Lionel Messi formally announced his arrival at Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday as he scored a trademark left-foot shot from the edge of the box to seal a 2-0 Champions League victory over Manchester City.
It was a strike assisted by Kylian Mbappe, whose precise lay-off allowed his new team-mate the opportunity to plant a shot into the top corner of Ederson’s net. Messi’s acknowledged the fact as he peeled away to celebrate, pointing to the World Cup winner as he truly established himself as a PSG player.
Notably absent from proceedings, however, was Neymar, who nevertheless posted an image of the trio together in the locker room celebrating after the game.
“I hope not to meet you soon, God forbid,” Chelsea defender Thiago Silva said in response.
While his Brazilian colleague was replying in a joking manner, this image was a reminder to PSG’s European rivals of the awesome firepower that they possess. The full potential of it has yet to be unlocked, however, with Neymar especially struggling to hit his straps in the early weeks of the 2021-22 campaign.
Indeed, the world’s most expensive player has low key been on some of his most disappointing form since joining PSG in 2017.
If his summer was illuminated by performances that dragged Brazil to the final of the Copa America before falling to Messi’s Argentina, it is worth pointing out that he only has three club goals from open play throughout the whole of 2021 – perhaps the most barren nine months of his entire career.
Admittedly 2021 has been punctuated by injury niggles for the 29-year-old, but having awarded him with a bumper contract, PSG would have expected more consistent return. His only goal so far this season was a controversially awarded penalty in a 2-1 win over Lyon.Getty Images
And concerns are being raised in France.
“His lifestyle… he’s starting to pay for little things. He’s paying the price,” Ludovic Obraniak, a former Poland international midfielder, told L’Equipe TV as he critiqued the Brazilian’s performance against City. “He’s not doubled his efforts; he’s divided them by his poker nights. He’s not taking care of himself the way he should.”
That things are not quite clicking for Neymar was especially evident against the Premier League champions, the type of high-level opponent that he, along with Messi and Mbappe, are expected to make the difference against.
His tracking back was admirable and has gone largely without comment from his detractors, but when in defensive positions he was prone to trying inexplicable skill moves that threatened to put his side in trouble.
On one occasion, he gifted possession away 40 yards from his goal, which led to a Kevin De Bruyne effort that fizzed about a foot wide of Gianluigi Donnarumma’s right-hand post. It was one of the few genuine glimpses of the target that the visiting side would have.
Perhaps this came about because he was caught in an unfamiliar position against elite opponents who press players into errors almost like no other team on the planet, but at times it seemed like he was trying too hard to stand out.Getty Images
Only a couple of minutes earlier, Neymar might have made the difference at the opposite end of the park. Having taken a quite exquisite first touch to bring down a cross-field pass, he failed to get in front of Kyle Walker, instead taking a route to goal that not only saw him opt for a more unfavourable angle but also the speedy full-back to make a recovery challenge.
Fully confident and at the peak of his powers, he might have made a better decision.
Neymar, though, is only human. Everyone at PSG this season is under more pressure to perform due to a remarkable summer transfer window that has only ramped up expectations around the club. He is not immune to this and it is understandable that he is perhaps overextending himself in a bid to impress alongside two superstar team-mates.
Messi and Mbappe are both off and running this season, and perhaps the collaboration that they have shown is a result of that.
Neymar, instead, was criticised for seemingly gaining weight in the off-season and then had to deal with a high-profile spat involving Mbappe, in which the Frenchman was caught by the cameras complaining that Neymar was in no mood to pass to him for a chance inside the box.
The Brazilian, then, seems to be feeling the pressure the most out of the trio, partly arising from the expectation that the understanding he had with Messi at Barcelona would click immediately.
That certainly has not been the case, with the Argentine instead linking better with Mbappe.
For the moment, the best assist that Neymar has made this season is the one in persuading Messi to move to Paris Saint-Germain. Once again, he has questions to answer and critics to silence.