Seldom has a 0-0 draw been welcomed as so promising. Paris Saint-Germain, serial champions of France, extravagant drivers of transfer fee inflation, began the defence of their Ligue 1 title at home to Lorient, who finished 10th last season, and could not break the deadlock.
But it was what was happening behind the scenes at the Parc des Princes on Saturday that left almost everybody in charge of PSG full of smiles.
Up in the grandstand sat a new signing, the €50 million Ousmane Dembele. If Dembele stays fit, there will be greater dazzle on the wings to supplement the energy and endeavour his new colleagues showed in their first official outing under freshly-appointed head coach Luis Enrique.
Seated next to Dembele was Kylian Mbappe, whose punitive exclusion from PSG practice had meant his absence from the line-up, but who is now back in training, news that was announced just as Mbappe-light PSG picked up their first point of 2023/24.
Thanks to the Mbappe blessing, Luis Enrique and the PSG president, Nasser Al Khelaifi, could cast aside most of their concerns at a scoreless match day one, convinced that the France captain, the club’s leading scorer for the past five seasons, will bring immediate extra firepower. Dembele should also add a complementary balance of speed on the opposite flank to Mbappe’s preferred left side.
The ongoing Mbappe saga has taken a sharp turn. He had, until the weekend, been effectively up for sale, because his contract with PSG expires in 2024 and, given he had very openly refused to extend his deal, PSG were facing the likelihood of Mbappe leaving for free next summer.
Talks between the player, who has rarely cloaked a desire to move to Real Madrid at some stage in his career, and Al Khelaifi on Saturday ended with an understanding that Mbappe will fulfill his stated intention to stay in Paris this season but, should he then leave, it will be with a transfer fee.
That would mean, logically, extending his contract beyond June 2024. There is as yet no confirmation of such an extension.
Coincidentally, PSG have agreed a €90 million fee with Al Hilal, the 18-time Saudi Arabian champions, for the sale of Neymar, whose personal terms for the move were being negotiated on Monday – a seismic development for all parties, and for 24-year-old Mbappe, whose six-year partnership with the Brazilian at PSG has been at once hugely productive – 54 goals assisted and scored together – and laced with personal and tactical tensions.
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Neymar and Mbappe have publicly clashed over the hierarchy of penalty-taking duties; their joust for primary status as emblem and figurehead of big-spending PSG’s ambitions has at times been scarcely concealed in the period since, in the summer of 2017, the club triggered Neymar’s €222 million buyout clause at Barcelona and, in the same summer transfer window, committed €180 million to buying the then teenaged Mbappe from Monaco.
A Neymar departure turns a new page for the Qatar-backed club and, with Al Hilal making the most determined bid for the Brazilian, for the Saudi Pro League’s bold aim to assemble many of the game’s most celebrated talents.
At 31, Neymar has, potentially, several peak years ahead. He has twice appeared on Ballon d’Or podiums behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. He is one goal shy of becoming his country’s record goalscorer in official, Fifa-recognised matches.
His legacy at PSG is mixed, however. No player represents more powerfully the Paris club’s game-changing wealth – the fee paid to Barcelona for Neymar remains the highest ever for a transfer – nor their fierce desire to gatecrash the cartel of European superclubs.
But with Neymar, PSG never quite conquered the Uefa Champions League, the trophy Al Khelaifi aspires to above all. The closest Neymar and Mbappe came to it in tandem was the 2020 final, a 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich.
Neymar became the focus of amplified supporter frustrations, too, as Mbappe has been sporadically over the past four, eventful years.
After a home loss to Lorient last May, a group of PSG ultras – hardcore fans – demonstrated outside Neymar’s suburban Paris home shouting for him to leave the club. The player had been out of action, recovering from ankle surgery, since February.
He has often complained about his rough treatment, as an immensely skillful dribbler, from man-markers in the French top division and about a lack of protection from Ligue 1 referees.
He lobbied for a move back to Barcelona several times and, while there was muted mutual interest in rolling back the years at Barca once Dembele had agreed to join PSG – the Camp Nou club bought Dembele, a France international, with some of the proceeds of Neymar’s sale to PSG in 2017 – it is not shared unreservedly by current Barcelona head coach, Xavi.
Once Al Hilal signalled their interest in Neymar, no European club was ready to match the fee they offered PSG.