“So, you also defend these days?” smiled the losing manager at the opposition superstar during Sunday's Trophee des Champions curtain-raiser to the French club season. The wise-crack came from Antoine Kombouare, the head coach of Nantes, with his side heading towards a 4-0 defeat. Neymar, who he was talking to in full earshot, took the remark in good grace.
But just about every barb aimed at Neymar left him smiling on a night Paris Saint-Germain set down a marker for the domestic domination they plan in the months ahead, and the sort of stellar individual performances they are determined to coax more consistently from the stars who make up their squad. Even when he was fouled, Neymar turned it to his benefit.
Brought down shortly before half-time, he took the subsequent free-kick, and converted it with a curling drive. Manhandled in the opposition penalty area eight minutes from full-time, he rolled in the spot-kick to complete the scoring.
Neymar had set up the first goal, with a through-ball that invited Lionel Messi to duel, one-on-one with Nantes goalkeeper Alban Lafont, one of several moments in which the chemistry between Neymar and Messi made observers recall their best days in partnership while at Barcelona.
The pair were reunited last summer in Paris, but so far have enjoyed only sporadic moments of complicity. “They showed a form, together, that was better than at any time in a PSG jersey,” reckoned L’Equipe, the French newspaper that chronicles the mood and mechanics of PSG studiously, of the Trophee des Champions exhibition.
Messi’s goal arrived after 23 minutes, a classic dribble and feint before a nimble finish. In 2021-22, Messi needed six Ligue 1 matches to get off the mark for PSG, the club he moved to, with a heavy heart, after he was abruptly released by Barca. He would only score six league goals all season and heard himself booed by home fans after the club’s flop in the Champions League, where PSG let a 2-0 lead evaporate in their last-16 tie against Real Madrid.
The crowd at the Trophee des Champions, an event exported for the second summer in succession to Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield stadium, cheered Messi throughout.
Nantes, like the other 18 clubs in the French top division, expect PSG to be in next year’s Trophee des Champions, too, as Ligue 1 winners again, just as they have been for eight of the last seasons. They would imagine Messi finishes up with many more goals to his name, especially if the relationship with Neymar runs smoothly as at the weekend. “They have a real technical link,” said Christophe Galtier, the new PSG head coach.
Galtier dedicated “part of the trophy” to his predecessor, Mauricio Pochettino, who led PSG to the league title in May but was sacked last month after his 18 months in charge had yielded a Champions League semi-final, that last-16 stumble in Madrid, a second place in the 2020-21 title race and what the club’s executives deemed a poor return on the substantial investment, in salaries and fees, in players last summer.
Achraf Hakimi and the Portuguese left-back Nuno Mendes excepted, Messi, Sergio Ramos, Gini Wijnaldum and Gigi Donnarumma all disappointed in their first seasons in Paris.
Wijnaldum, who joined from Liverpool, is expected to move on, with Roma interested, but Galtier was pleased with the zest of Messi, and the contributions of Ramos and Donnarumma against Nantes. The Italian goalkeeper made an eye-catching save, while Ramos flew home from Tel-Aviv with a proud new addition to a personal showreel that already includes a high number of goals for a central defender. His instinctive backheel put PSG 3-0 up.
And he played the full 90 minutes, something he managed only once in the first half of an injury-plagued 2021-22, the former Real Madrid captain only regaining full fitness towards the end of his debut PSG campaign.
But, with Kylian Mbappe suspended, the night was principally Neymar’s. His opening goal was his first from a direct free-kick for PSG since 2019. He willingly tracked back, as Kombouare noted. He then took it upon himself to act as a sort of master of ceremonies by draping the winners’ medals on the necks of all his colleagues. The club will expect harder-won gold medals to be coming their way at the season’s end.