Edinson Cavani and Neymar spat shows PSG must focus on teamwork
On paper, it looks great. Paris Saint-Germain have won all six Ligue 1 matches so far, scoring 21 goals, conceding only three.
They lead Monaco at the top by three points and also beat their rivals in the French Super Cup in August (2-1) as well as starting their Champions League campaign perfectly with a 5-0 hammering of Celtic at Celtic Park.
World-record €222 million signing Neymar has been a star already, while teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe has shown no problems in adapting to his new club either. Add in the great form of young midfielder Adrien Rabiot, veteran defender Thiago Silva looking as good as ever and Dani Alves’ winning mentality in the dressing room, and PSG have looked very strong so far this season.
However, it’s not all perfect at the Parc des Princes. Sunday’s tough 2-0 win against Lyon, their hardest opponent so far, showed that the old complacency has returned in the Paris ranks. It was a regular feature when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was at the club. It didn’t mean then, and still doesn’t now, that PSG’s arrogance prevents them from winning but not playing as a team will certainly make things more difficult.
PSG got away with it on Sunday in a game they probably didn’t deserve to win. Five days after the fantastic football they produced in Scotland, it was disappointing to see them so sloppy and sluggish against Lyon.
More importantly, there were two public spats between Edinson Cavani and Neymar during the game over a free kick and a penalty. This is not the first time something like this has happened: in the 3-0 win against St Etienne a few weeks ago, Neymar asked Cavani to let him take a penalty, which the Uruguayan striker refused (as he did again on Sunday).
Cavani is the No. 1 penalty taker at the club and is already involved in a tight race with Radamel Falcao to finish as Ligue 1 top scorer this campaign (Cavani on seven; Falcao on nine) so there was no way he was going to let anyone else take the spot-kick.
By the way, both PSG players are not far off in terms of ratio of penalties taken and scored in the league and the Champions League since they moved to Europe: 76.1 percent for Cavani (35 scored out of 46) and 71.4 percent for Neymar (10 out of 14).
Cavani netted against St Etienne, but failed against Lyon. Obviously, having two players (perhaps even three if you count Dani Alves getting involved and hiding the ball from Cavani to hand it to his Brazilian mate) arguing on the pitch doesn’t make PSG look good. It is not unusual at this highly competitive level, though.
Cavani had not scored on Sunday before the penalty was awarded and the score was still just 1-0 at the time so the spot kick was crucial. That’s probably why Neymar wanted to take it. Since his move to PSG this summer, he has wanted to make his mark on the team. He is the technical leader; the one who should make the difference and who has the responsibility to lead PSG to victory. So he feels he has to be involved in key moments of matches.
For his part, manager Unai Emery didn’t intervene — he did worse than that. After the game, when asked about the incident in his news conference, he said he would let the players sort it out themselves. This is not right. Emery is the one who should make the decision, not the players. At PSG, like at every club, there must be a clear hierarchy on penalty takers. If the No. 1 is not playing at the time, the No. 2 takes it. If he is off, it is the No. 3, and so on.
At Barcelona, Lionel Messi was the first-choice though occasionally he would let Neymar take some. On the other hand, during Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s tenure at PSG, Cavani never got a chance to take one as Ibra was rarely off.
Emery’s comments have created more confusion. The debate over his leadership has been brought up again. Is he capable of dealing with a dressing room with so many big egos? This is now a Galactico environment where you need proper man-management skills to keep everything running smoothly.
Cavani, the only Uruguayan in the squad, has always been a bit of a loner in the PSG dressing room. When Ibrahimovic was ruling the place, it felt like he was a bit of an afterthought and now with Neymar and Alves, among a host of Brazilians running the show, it can’t be easy for him.
Alves insisted afterwards that team ethic is key to PSG, but Sunday’s actions speak louder than words. The question now is how Emery is going to react? Clearly there is tension and there might be more behind it, but PSG cannot afford to allow it to derail their season.
The French giants need Neymar, Cavani and all the other fantastic talents in the squad to put it behind them and focus on the team if they want to achieve great things this season.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.