First Paris, now the rest of the world for Neymar
PSG's Neymar watches the ball during the Champions League Group B soccer match between Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich in Paris, France, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
By John Leicester, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — In a city that knows a thing or two about fine dining, Neymar has, within weeks, already got Paris eating out his hands.
Barcelona loved the Brazilian, too, of course. But it's quickly becoming clear that Neymar made the smart play in leaving the club that turned him into a global superstar. Not because of the eye-watering sums of money that Paris Saint-Germain is paying him, and paid for him. But because, in Paris, Neymar has the base camp he needs to conquer the summit of club football, to dislodge Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and break their nine-year duopoly on the Ballon d'Or.
The outline of this cunning master plan might go something like this:
— Within months, and certainly no more than a season or two, PSG will be revolving entirely around Neymar. He will have made it his club, just as Zlatan Ibrahimovic dominated it before him. Unlike more collegial teams, and perhaps fittingly for a city dominated by a solitary giant iron tower, Paris has a fondness for stand-out stars. There was Pauleta and then Ibrahimovic, who broke the Portuguese striker's club scoring record, and now Neymar.
Ibrahimovic bent the club to his will with the catnip combo of goals and his sometimes entertainingly large ego.
Neymar, a more nuanced show-boater, will rely more on superior football skills. In Paris, his repertoire of feints, changes in direction and speed, inventiveness, ball control and seeming 360-degree vision are no longer overshadowed by Messi's gifts, giving Neymar more space to impress — including to Ballon d'Or voters.
— The world-record fee PSG paid for Neymar (222 million euros; $262 million) made the 25-year-old forward the priciest jewel in the expensive roster of stars assembled by PSG's money-no-object Qatari owners. But it didn't automatically guarantee him top-dog status in the dressing room. Repeated clutch performances, like in PSG's 3-0 dismantling of Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Wednesday, will cement Neymar in that spot.
Neymar seemed to slow time in creating the opening goal for Dani Alves, making Bayern defenders look frozen as he sliced through them. He then showed the presence of mind to spot and pick out Alves' unmarked sprint from deep right into the Bayern box.
Neymar scored the third himself — taking his tally to six in his first seven league games (French and Champions). He was still running around like a kid off the bench, out to prove himself, in the final minutes.
Although Neymar also missed scoring chances, such commanding displays can impose a pecking order of power and influence among players. Edinson Cavani, who scored PSG's second against Bayern, and others will find it increasingly difficult to argue with the newbie that they should be taking the penalties and free kicks when Neymar's football argues otherwise and reinforces his No. 1 status with PSG fans and hierarchy.
"Truly, a magnificent player," club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said after the match. "For me, the best player in the world."
Although Messi and Ronaldo are in their thirties, positioning Neymar as the young king-in-waiting, Al-Khelaifi is surely getting ahead of himself. Still, it was noteworthy that no less a player than Bayern's Arjen Robben scooted over to Neymar afterward to get his shirt. Robben won't be the last.
— Messi (with five) and Ronaldo (four) owed chunks of their world player-of-the-year trophies to their teams. Neymar needs PSG to continually improve to dethrone them. It is unwise, in September, to draw conclusions from Champions League group-stage matches about how PSG will perform at the business end of the competition next year. The fans' banner that boasted "Tomorrow, Europe will be red and blue" is premature for now.
But in beating Bayern black and blue, PSG's omens look good. Homegrown midfielder Adrien Rabiot, a more dandy French variant of Paul Scholes, who likes to press forward, is developing an instinctive on-pitch understanding with Neymar.
The speed and craftiness of Neymar and teenaged sensation Kylian Mbappe up front also will wrong-foot and open up better defenses than Bayern's.
Behind them, even PSG midfielder Marco Verratti is having to adapt.
"He's very quick," the Italian said of Mbappe. "Sometimes, you turn with the ball and can't even keep up ... We were lacking a player like that."
Playing with Messi will, of course, always be one of the highlights of Neymar's career.
But playing for himself, for his own place in history at PSG, will define that career.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Follow and contact him on Twitter