A comeback from the penalty spot, engineered and converted by Kylian Mbappe. An emotional departure for Neymar, on his way home unexpectedly early. A suspenseful wait to see what sort of impact Lionel Messi may yet have on events.
The return to action of Paris Saint-Germain after a World Cup in which no club had such a vested interest produced knife-edged drama on Wednesday night. If the main actors, especially Mbappe, were eager to move on from Qatar 2022, it was hard to avoid the many parallels.
There was Mbappe’s wrestling the narrative the way of his team, decisively so with his converted spot-kick in the 96th minute of an edgy contest against Strasbourg. Ten evenings earlier, Mbappe, with a penalty, had dragged France back into a final where they had twice trailed. He would score a third penalty that night during his country's losing shoot-out against Messi’s Argentina.
That’s four converted spot-kicks, two of them also earned by Mbappe, in the space of 11 days. Among his many distinctions, the 24-year-old’s coolness under pressure, be it under the threat of dropping points in Ligue 1 or steering a World Cup final to its resolution by shoot-out, is a rapidly developing gift.
Less evident is the same sort calmness in Neymar, who 19 days after leaving the pitch at Al Rayyan in tears, with his Brazil eliminated at the quarter-finals, was on his way out of the Parc des Princes before the final whistle blew on PSG's 2-1 victory over Strasbourg.
He had been sent off just after the hour, leaving his teammates precariously overworked with the score still at 1-1.
Neymar received a first yellow card for thrusting a hand into the face of Adrien Thomasson during one of several tussles. Through his five and a half years playing for Qatari-owned PSG, Neymar has frequently complained of the rugged man-marking he is subjected to in Ligue 1, and of the lenient refereeing that allows it.
He appeared to be making similar points to Wednesday's referee Clement Turpin after his booking. Less than two minutes later, Neymar was dashing into the Strasbourg penalty area and falling to the ground as defender Alexander Djiku shepherded him towards the goal-line.
Turpin saw that Neymar had simulated a foul by Djiku; there had been no contact. It meant a second caution, a red card and suspension for Sunday’s meeting between top-of-the-table PSG and second-placed Lens. That will be Neymar’s third ban for accumulated cards in what is still a young season.
France players arrive home from World Cup - in pictures
PSG’s head coach, Christophe Galtier, acknowledged Neymar had dived, but thought the initial booking severe “given the number of fouls made against Neymar. The aggression against him led to his feeling frustrated,” said Galtier. Neymar, reportedly, had already headed home when PSG’s 10 men returned to the dressing room relieved at their last-gasp capture of the three points.
Messi, given time off after leading Argentina to their triumph in Qatar, was not at the Parc des Princes and is not expected to be match-ready in time to face Lens.
He should reappear, flush with his World Cup success, for PSG's home game against Angers on January 11. He will certainly be applauded by the Paris crowd, though probably not on the scale of the rousing cheers given to Mbappe on Wednesday.
Not so long ago, a significant portion of PSG loyalists were sceptical about their young French star because he hardly disguised his interest in joining Real Madrid. Since committing to a new PSG contract in May, they have warmed more to their most reliable goalscorer and match-winner. But the reception granted Mbappe on his first club appearance after his outstanding month in Qatar was as affectionate as he has ever known.
Mbappe responded in kind. He had taken no post-Qatar holiday, an appreciated gesture. “The message is simple,” he said. “Whatever happens with the national team, PSG is something different. I want to give the club energy. I am determined to bring all the trophies to Paris.”
Mbappe came up narrowly short of winning his second World Cup the weekend before last. But he came back from Qatar with the Golden Boot. Messi meanwhile seized his longed-for gold medal. And Neymar? A third blank World Cup with Brazil left him distraught and heading towards a career crossroads.
For all his excellence for PSG – he set up the opening goal on Wednesday, an 11th assist of the season – the growing feeling is that, of the club’s three attacking superstars, it is Neymar who seems closest to being offered a golden handshake, a strong suggestion from his club that, this coming summer, he should seek his next challenge elsewhere.