Neymar’s hot, heavy, but ultimately unconsummated flirtations with Barcelona during this summer’s transfer window put Paris Saint-Germain in a bizarre position: the club would keep its biggest star—the second-best player in the world, the best hope to drive the team to Champions League glory—and yet would be absolutely miserable about it. Once the window closed, all the intrigue of PSG’s season turned to seeing what it looked like when the unhappy couple tried to stick it out for the sake of the trophies. As expected, the result has been very weird.
This weekend, Neymar played just his fourth match of the season after returning from his self-imposed exile while he awaited the transfer that never materialized. As was the case in three of those four matches, PSG struggled to break down their opponent until Neymar conjured some magic late on to score, giving the Parisian club a narrow 1–0 victory. This time Bordeaux were the club Neymar had to rescue PSG from, and he did so just in time:
The Brazilian’s performance against Bordeaux resembled his others from the start of this young season. Looking rusty and maybe a little heavier than normal—a reflection of the fact that, mostly due to injury, he’s played only eight matches over the past eight months—Neymar did all the typical Neymar things, only without the refined quality that makes his astounding array of skills succeed as often as usual.
Since Lionel Messi’s steady physical decline, no player in the world influences and dominates as many stages of play as Neymar, and that was true on Saturday as well. Be it when dropping all the way to the center backs to start PSG’s attacks by making the first forward pass, or standing between the lines with the ball and progressing the attack with a deep run or a cutting pass, or threatening the defense in the final third with his passing and shooting and dribbling and close control and savvy movements with and without the ball, Neymar was as all-encompassing a force as exists in the sport today. But because he’s yet to find his stride, most of Neymar’s most moves were just a hair too loose or imprecise to come off just right. That, coupled with the numerous injuries to PSG’s forward line neutering what is normally one of the most fearsome and efficient attacks on the planet, meant PSG found it difficult to create and score. Still, even a half-fit Neymar is lethal, and he eventually proved it when he scored the match’s only goal in the 70th minute by turning in a Kylian Mbappé cross.
Clearly, Neymar is still great. His terribly timed injuries of the past two seasons, which have kept him out of the showcase matches of the Champions League, World Cup, and Copa América, plus Ligue 1's largely invisible presence on the greater soccer scene, have allowed people to forget that Neymar is, when healthy, unbelievably good. At this point, not even Messi himself is as much like Prime Messi as Neymar can be. Which makes it all the stranger that PSG can be in possession of a player like this and still probably wish they could’ve gotten rid of him before the start of the season.
When Neymar gets back to his best, and when Mbappé and Edinson Cavani are healthy and in form, PSG should once again be serious candidates to win the Champions League. If PSG succeed in lifting the one trophy that really matters to them, it will be because Neymar has played out of this world—which is to say, played like himself—deep into the spring for the first time since coming to France.
Is it possible for a player to reach his highest level in a country he was eager to flee, for a club that no longer wants him, in front of fans who’d rather boo than cheer his goals? If not, can a player, club, and fanbase manage to put aside their differences temporarily in an effort to maximize their chances of realizing a shared obsession?
By carrying PSG to victory after victory in recent weeks, Neymar is currently doing his best to demonstrate his willingness and ability to forget the offseason drama and instead focus on the season in front of him. Time is running out, for Neymar and PSG and their fans, and the longer they go without winning in Europe the harder it will become. It will be fascinating to see if the goals and wins and even better performances Neymar is sure to provide will be enough for PSG fans to let him back into their good graces, or if the shared animosity amongst all parties involved is so poisonous that it leads to a final lost season, the bitter conclusion to a union that once seemed so bright.