FIVE bookings, a red card, another home defeat and tension in the 16th arondissement – Paris Saint-Germain may have mislaid their league title this season, despite the return of Neymar to their starting line-up.
It’s not over yet by any stretch of the imagination, but PSG’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of Lille, giving the team from Hauts-de-France a three point lead over the reigning champions, may prove to be the defining moment of the campaign. There are seven games to go but PSG will lose the Brazilian to suspension after his 90th minute red card against Lille.
Neymar had been in a tetchy mood for most of the game, displaying an attitude of “I can do what I like”, and his frustration boiled over when he shoved over the boisterous Tiago Djalo to the floor. The two players even clashed in the tunnel as they trudged off in disgrace.
PSG must wonder if project Neymar has really been worth it. Since joining the club in 2017, Neymar has played 65 Ligue 1 games out of a possible 145 – just 45%. Admittedly, it hasn’t really prevented PSG from being successful – which does pose the question about PSG really needing to exercise such a soft power move to continue their French dominance – but if you pay € 222 million in transfer fees and an astronomic wage to follow, you want to see your crown jewels on display. Tellingly, Neymar has played 71% of PSG’s UEFA Champions League games since joining the club.
Neymar was signed to make PSG European champions and they went close last season, but they haven’t been able to match the really top clubs on a consistent basis. The recent thrashing of Barcelona in the Camp Nou suggested they may have arrived, especially as it came after making the 2019-20 final. But can they beat Bayern this time around?
What is definitely different this time is that PSG have domestic challengers for the first time since Monaco won the league in 2017. That season aside, PSG have won the title every time since 2013 and the average margin of success has been 14 points.
They went top recently after beating another title pretender, Lyon, 4-2 away from home, just as Lille were went down 2-1 at home to Nîmes. It is also still hard to rule out a late challenge from Lyon and Monaco, but Lille look the most impressive of the front-runners after their 1-0 win at the Parc des Princes.
It will be a remarkable achievement if Lille pull it off. Their wage bill for the season is less than € 150 million and around a quarter of PSG’s € 600 million. In many ways, they are the complete opposite of PSG: over the past five years, they have accrued net positive income from the transfer market of around € 150 million versus PSG’s net deficit of approximately € 360 million.
Lille’s success in 2020-21 is all the more remarkable given they sold two of their best players last summer for sizeable fees: Victor Osimhen to Napoli for € 50 million and Gabriel to Arsenal for € 30 million. At the same time, they signed Canadian striker Jonathan David for € 30 million from Gent. David scored the winning goal against PSG, finishing off a cross from Nanitamo Ikone in the 20th minute. Unfortunately, the exciting David was injured and lasted another 15 minutes before retiring to the stand with a block of ice for company.
Lille certainly looked strong at the back and were well organised and robustly determined, especially when they lost possession. Benjamin André caught the eye as he orchestrated Lille’s midfield. The 30 year-old has had an excellent season and may yet win his first cap before the season’s out. He could even make the Euros.
PSG had their chances, Neymar volleying wide and also wasted a diving header when it looked easier to score. Lille had few opportunities, but substitute Burak Yilmaz really should have sewn the game up when he hit his first time effort straight at Keylor Navas.
This was a crucial win for Lille, but they have a tougher run-in than PSG, notably trips to Lens and Lyon. But Lille are unbeaten away from home in Ligue 1 since November – their only league defeat on their travels – and have conceded 19 in their 31 games. It is still hard to dismiss PSG as they have the resources and the experience of winning the league. That is why the French title race is arguably the most interesting among Europe’s top leagues as the finale approaches. If PSG do fall short, how will they react, and how will that influence Neymar’s future?