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Pochettino's big error: Why did he play Neymar against Caen with Barcelona tie looming?

12:00 GMT 12/02/2021
Neymar PSG
Last season's Champions League finalists go into their last-16 clash against Barcelona having been needlessly deprived of their most important player

For the third time in four years at Paris Saint-Germain, Neymar will miss at least one leg of the Champions League last 16.

A mere six days before Mauricio Pochettino’s side were due to square off against Barcelona at Camp Nou, the Brazil ace took to the field for PSG in a Coupe de France match with Caen.

It was a game he didn’t need to play in.

Caen are 11th in Ligue 2. They went into their big night against PSG having won only one of their previous nine outings. Moreover, they were hindered by injuries and suspensions; five regulars missed out.

In short, this was not a match that called for the firepower brought by the game’s most expensive player.

And the artillery Neymar brings to any battle is remarkable. He is averaging a goal or an assist every 70 minutes this season. In his five Champions League outings, he has been similarly decisive once every 55 minutes.

There is simply no doubting his ability as an in-form, world-class performer.

Neymar, though, couldn’t resist the chance of playing a minnow. For him, it was an opportunity to show his array of skills.

In an hour on the field, he completed seven dribbles, got an assist for PSG’s sole goal, scored by Moise Kean, but following a challenge from Steve Yago, picked up an injury that will see him miss a crucial month of PSG's campaign.

For the second time this season, Neymar has strained his left adductor, an injury that had previously sidelined him for three weeks.

Mauricio Pochettino defended his decision to deploy the attacker but there was no hiding the fact that was his first big error as PSG boss.

“He was perfectly in condition to play,” the Argentine said, defending himself. “I don't want to take it out on the way the opponent played and the way [Neymar] played his game. But I just have the feeling that sometimes there is a lack of protection during matches from refereeing. But it's just a feeling.”

While the argument that Neymar is not looked after by referees holds water, it is equally true to say that fact was not about to change overnight – especially when an opponent from a lower league was always likely to make up for the massive gulf in technical deficit with a very physical approach.

Indeed, in Neymar’s 60 minutes on the field, he accounted for six of the 14 fouls given to his side over the course of the whole game.

It has been claimed that because Neymar failed to start the weekend’s match against Marseille because of a stomach bug, he needed to play in Caen to maintain his sharpness.

Having played five matches in the previous 28 days, though, that argument also looks flimsy, particularly with a challenging fixture to come against Nice at the weekend.

Now he faces a four-week spell on the sidelines that jeopardises PSG’s whole season – both at home and abroad.

"The sadness is great, the pain is immense and the crying is constant," he wrote on his Instagram account. “Once again, I will stop for a while doing what I love the most in life, which is playing football.

"Sometimes, I feel uncomfortable because of my style of play, because I dribble and they constantly hit me. I don't know if the problem is me or what I do on the field. It saddens me a lot.

"It saddens me a lot to hear from a player, coach, commentator or whoever the hell it is, that ‘you really have to hit him’, ‘he falls’, ‘he cries’, ‘a child’, ‘spoiled’ etc.

"It honestly saddens me and I don't even know how much I can bear it. I just want to be happy playing football. NOTHING ELSE."

By the time Neymar next steps onto the field, PSG could be out of the Champions League.

When the draw was made, they might have expected to overcome a crisis-hit Barcelona, but as they will also be missing Angel Di Maria for the first leg, much now hinges on Kylian Mbappe – a player not presently in his best run of form.

A very winnable tie suddenly appears to be on the edge of a knife.

Domestically, meanwhile, PSG are third in Ligue 1, three points behind Lille and two adrift of a Lyon side without European commitments.

During Neymar’s projected absence, Pochettino’s side will have to face Nice and Monaco at home, as well as Dijon and Bordeaux away. Monaco, on a charge under Niko Kovac, having won all eight of their competitive fixtures in 2021, promise to be a particularly stiff challenge.

Internally, meanwhile, there are some concerns over Neymar’s lifestyle.

“Partying is an opportunity to relax, to enjoy life,” Neymar told TF1 in January. “It’s one thing I’ll never give up.”

While the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have prolonged their careers with ‘invisible training’, there is a feeling that Neymar’s job seems to stop when he steps off the field.

This, however, is a long-term issue that needs to be addressed by the management, and one they would have been aware of as they asked Neymar to play his sixth game in the space of a month.

Having seen him injured against an opponent PSG’s second team would be expected to breeze past, they have now been unnecessarily deprived of their biggest talent when they need him most.