Neymar and PSG have scores to settle against Manchester United
French side suffered controversial elimination from Champions League to United in March 2019
The last time Manchester United went to Paris, one of the spectators ended up with a ban that kept him away from Champions League matches for nearly eight months.
That spectator was Neymar, out with injury in March 2019, but so incensed watching from the sidelines at the way Paris Saint-Germain lost to United that he rounded on officials and ended up with a three-match suspension, later reduced to two.
There will be no spectators at the Parc des Princes on Tuesday for the first meeting of these clubs since then, because of the pandemic.
But Neymar will be there, in his more comfortable role on the pitch, and, unlike 19 months ago, when he seemed to be itching for a move elsewhere, it will be a Neymar who seems relatively settled, if not entirely tamed.
He has only recently come out of a two-match domestic ban for his part in a tempestuous Ligue 1 clash with Olympique Marseille.
But the key difference between now and the night when United conjured a last-gasp victory in the last-16 of the Champions League, thanks to a controversial penalty award for a PSG handball, is not Neymar’s presence. It is that their hosts can now call themselves European vice-champions.
Reaching the club’s first European Cup final, in August – a narrow defeat to Bayern Munich – was a huge breakthrough for PSG.
Until then, they had endured eight years combining the status of the biggest spenders in Europe with that of Europe's most spectacular underachievers. When Neymar – and several team-mates – erupted with anger at Manchester United’s late penalty, converted by Marcus Rashford for an away goals win last year, it spoke not only of anger at VAR, at new handball guidelines, but of pent-up frustration.
That season’s elimination was their third in succession at the last-16 stage. It was the second time in three years PSG had let a first-leg advantage be overturned in a second leg. Barcelona had knocked them out from 4-0 down in 2017; United lost the Old Trafford leg 2-0 before winning 3-1 in France.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the United manager, owed a lot to having overseen that tense comeback: he was elevated from caretaker coach to permanent boss in part thanks to the outcome.
Thomas Tuchel, PSG’s head coach, looks back on that night with no affection. “Certainly not a happy memory for us. We had won the away game and the second leg did not go well,” he recalled.
The important thing is to prove ourselves again, not dwell too much on either last season or the season before.
“But things have changed. We made it to the final in the last Champions League and that brings with it confidence. The important thing is to prove ourselves again, not dwell too much on either last season or the season before.”
Tuchel has made no secret of having wanted a more productive 2020 transfer window. He believed PSG should have invested substantially, if not quite on the scale that, three years ago, bought them the most expensive pair of forwards ever combined – Neymar, €222m ($261m) from Barcelona, and Kylian Mbappe, €180m, from Monaco.
He made the point that a trio of senior servants left this summer, Thiago Silva joining Chelsea, Edinson Cavani released, to then join United, and right-back Thomas Meunier transferring to Borussia Dortmund.
No superstars have come in, although new signings Danilo, the Portugal midfielder, and Alessandro Florenzi, the Italy right-back, can anticipate places in the first-choice XI. Rafinha, the former Barcelona midfielder, has shown he can be a helpful launcher of through-balls of the sort Mbappe thrives on.
Mbappe, Angel Di Maria, who spent a season at United, and Neymar should form the front three, a menace to a United who have conceded 12 goals in their opening four Premier League matches of the season.
Asked if he thought United vulnerable at the back, Tuchel replied: “We will always focus on putting pressure on the opposition defence, and work out what areas we are going to attack, and how best to use the qualities of Di Maria, Neymar and Mbappe. And we are always capable of goals.”
PSG have scored 10 in their last two outings, even with Neymar absent from one of those games and Di Maria suspended from both.
As for 33-year-old Cavani, he did not travel to Paris despite training with the team before the clash. Cavani, who in seven seasons at PSG became the club’s all-time highest goalscorer, was available to play to play his first minutes for United, but was not deemed fit enough after seven months out of action.
Updated: October 20, 2020 09:27 AM