Neymar has “No doubts” Paris Saint-Germain will win the UEFA Champions League, and he ruled out playing in this current season’s final in May, despite the fact that he’s as yet persevering through an extensive spell on the treatment table dealing with a broken metatarsal.
The world’s most expensive player made the bold claim that his club can finally win the most coveted prize in Europe during an interview with Red Bull (h/t AS): “PSG will be Champions League champion. PSG is not just about me—it has an awesome team with great athletes and a genius coach. Besides, the PSG fans are like a 12th player when we are playing in Paris. I have no doubts that we will be champions and that I will be playing.”
Those words look prophetic after Neymar-less PSG beat Manchester United 2-0 in the first leg of the last 16 at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. Being without both their gifted No. 10 and club-record goalscorer Edinson Cavani didn’t hamper Les Parisiens in the red half of Manchester.
Instead, the Ligue 1 leaders coolly dispatched United with goals from Presnel Kimpembe and Kylian Mbappe.
The stellar performance was proof of the ample strength in depth of the PSG squad. Julian Draxler and Angel Di Maria helped fill the void created by the injuries to Neymar and Cavani (hip).
Di Maria assisted both goals, while Mbappe’s finish was a reminder of the 20-year-old’s seemingly inevitable progression to eventually exceed Neymar as PSG’s biggest star.
Kylian Mbappé in the #UCL = 🔥🔥🔥
1⃣4⃣ goals in this competition
1⃣0⃣ goals away from home pic.twitter.com/YplfQmE1ew
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) February 12, 2019
Mbappe has a great chance to showcase his burgeoning importance and influence during Neymar’s absence. The latter is expected to be out until April at least, but the Brazil international is confident he will get the help to ensure it won’t be longer: “The treatment has just begun. It will be a long journey, and I will have little victories day-by-day. Thank God I have great professionals by my side and the support of PSG as well as the support from fans all over the world.”
Even without Neymar, Les Parisiens have proved they can go anywhere and win in the Champions League. Ending United’s 11-match unbeaten run, which included 10 wins, owed as much to Mbappe and Co. as it did to manager Thomas Tuchel’s tactics.
Didn’t notice this on TV last night, but @UEFAcom average positions diagram shows PSG basically switched to a back three at half-time. Underlines importance of versatility to Tuchel: multiple players (Kehrer, Marquinhos, Alves, Draxler etc.) capable of playing different roles. pic.twitter.com/vwDDrukID4
— Tom Williams (@tomwfootball) February 13, 2019
Former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger also applauded the man-marking role Marquinhos performed to nullify United’s main creative outlet, Paul Pogba, during an appearance on beIN Sports (h/t Alex Richards of the Mirror).
Marquinhos is a natural ball-playing centre-back who has been deployed as a deep-lying midfielder by Tuchel several times this season. The transition hasn’t always gone smoothly, but Tuchel’s faith and ideas are starting to bear fruit for Neymar’s international teammate.
Tuchel’s willingness to try players in different roles has lent PSG a tactical flexibility missing from previous Champions League campaigns. This kind of nous can help prove Neymar right, although PSG have lost from more commanding positions before.
Advantage PSG! Disciplined & deserved. Spot on, Tuchel. They soaked up any pressure, then owned this. Wretched for United to lose Martial and Lingard, then Pogba red. If any team knows not to take this result for granted, it’s PSG, but…….🤷🏽♀️ #championsleague #UCL #MUNPSG
— Reshmin Chowdhury (@ReshminTV) February 12, 2019
The club famously blew a 4-0 first-leg lead at the same stage in 2017, losing 6-1 to Barcelona in the second leg at the Nou Camp. Last season saw Real Madrid win 5-1 on aggregate to hand PSG another humbling exit from the round of 16 en route to lifting the trophy for a third successive year.
While Tuchel has enough match-winners to cope without Neymar, it’s easy to believe PSG still lack sufficient experience and guile at this level to go all the way. It’s one thing for Les Parisiens to swat aside a resurgent side following Jose Mourinho’s sacking in mid-December, but they still have flaws in holding their nerve compared with seasoned winners Real and Barca.
What is obvious is that PSG are equipped to go further than in recent seasons, even without Neymar, although his presence would surely make Tuchel’s task easier.