The Brazilian might have missed his opportunity to become the world’s best player and his young PSG team-mate should take heed of where he went wrong
For the first time in 2019, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe will take to the field together in Champions League action when Paris Saint-Germain face Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday.
Suspension, then injury, prevented the Brazilian from featuring in any of the Ligue 1 champions’ previous Group A matches this season, yet PSG have fared well without him, winning their first four games of the competition without conceding a single goal.
Such an impressive run has prompted many to question just how important Neymar really is to the capital side, with it having even been suggested that he has a detrimental effect on their performances.
Certainly, RMC pundit Christophe Dugarry was fearful of the South American’s impact on the attitude of Mbappe, both on and off the field.
“I don’t want my dreams to be broken with Kylian,” the 1998 World Cup winner warned after the thumping 5-0 away success over Club Brugge, a match in which the Parisian had come off the bench to score a hat-trick.
“I like what PSG are showing at the moment: this humility; this modest approach to matches; their appetite for work. I don’t want a war of egos or statistics. If you’re great, it’s up to us pundits to say so.
“I’d rather Mbappe hung out with Idrissa Gueye, Ander Herrera or Angel Di Maria. It’s less fun to hang out with these guys, it’s more of a party with Neymar, but hey!…
“As I said, I’m afraid the dream could be broken with this boy. I feel that things could quickly turn bad.
“Maybe I’m a little hard on Mbappe, but it’s just as important to be a good guy as a great player.”
The 20-year-old had minutes earlier became the youngest player to score 15 Champions League goals, beating the previous record of Lionel Messi by 347 days.
It was, however, the youngster’s post-match comments that struck Dugarry.
“I wanted to start,” Mbappe said. “I thought about playing from the start. It’s the coach’s decision and you have to accept it. I wanted to show again that it’s hard to do without me.”
Was the Frenchman, who, after helping Monaco to the Ligue 1 title in 2017, had forgone a party to go back to sleep, showing a hunger to play or was he simply greedy for the spotlight?
Dugarry clearly feels it was the latter, though that is open to debate.
Certainly, on the field, there has been mounting evidence of a samba influence in Mbappe’s game.
It would be unfair to suggest that even in the early months of his professional career he relied solely on his searing pace, but there is no doubt that he employs more flicks and tricks since he teamed up with Neymar.
While it has made his already formidable game more highlight-friendly, it has not made it discernibly more effective.
Clearly, as the years go on, Mbappe will need to modify his style, particularly if he continues to be plagued with the type of muscular problems that have hit him this season.
To evolve effectively, though, it is not to his more senior attacking team-mate that he should be looking, but instead to his childhood idol, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Neymar, at the age of 27, when he should be reaching his peak, has stagnated in a world of his own ego, one in which show and flair trumps effectiveness.
Sure, his numbers in France continue to be impressive, but there is an overriding feeling that he is playing for himself and not the team.
His game is a triumph of style over substance, but it has not yet elevated him to the standard of the world’s best – a status that was once considered inevitable.
Compare that, then, to Ronaldo, who at 34 remains one of the game’s outstanding performers.
And while the Portuguese may have his detractors, what no-one can deny is the way in which he has developed from an immature boy at Manchester United, where he was infamous for his overuse of stepovers, into a scoring machine of outrageous consistency at Old Trafford, Real Madrid and now Juventus.
He has simplified rather than complicated his play as the years have gone on.
Of course, he retains an unwavering belief in his own ability, but it is rare this is a detriment to his teams – far more often than not, it is an asset.
Hard work and rigorous application have got Ronaldo to the pinnacle of the game and have kept him there for the best part of two decades, claiming five Ballons d’Or along the way.
Neymar, meanwhile, has yet to reach that level of performance for the course of a year, let alone sustain it for a career. Indeed, he has his own questions to answer as to whether his career has already hit its peak – something that fans may only discover when he leaves Paris.
Furthermore, there is a very real argument to be made that Mbappe has already surpassed his spotlight-grabbing cohort.
PSG see the Frenchman as more integral to their long-term plans, having already opened contract talks with him, two-and-a-half years before his deal is up.
Of course, the World Cup winner holds local appeal, having been born in the city, but his worldwide draw is emphasised by the fact that he now sells more shirts than Neymar.
It’s time, then, for Mbappe to cast off his team-mate as a figure to aspire to and instead continue on his own path to greatness.
The Brazilian, it seems, has missed the boat when it comes to replacing Ronaldo and Messi as the world’s greatest – he should not be allowed to hinder Mbappe’s hopes of realising that dream.
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