Rivalries exist throughout the game. In France, we have PSG v Marseille, Marseille v Lyon, and numerous other derby games. But what about rivalries between players? In Spain, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi seemed to spur each other on to new heights of greatness at their respective clubs. Well, imagine if they both played for the same club. In Paris, something along those lines could be about to emerge with the capital club blessed with two of the biggest “post Messi and Ronaldo era” players in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
Turn the clock back to August 2017 – PSG had just unveiled world record signing Neymar. One of the main reasons for the move from Barcelona seemed to be that the Brazilian wanted to step out of Messi’s shadow and have a team to call his own. Only a couple of weeks later, however, PSG completed yet another huge move as Monaco youngster Kylian Mbappe joined on loan (with the €180m fee to be paid a year later). Whilst Mbappe joined off the back of a stellar breakthrough season during which he helped Monaco to the Ligue 1 title and a Champions League semi-final, there was still little doubt that Neymar was the big name in that team.
Whilst both players shone for the most part during their first seasons in Paris, Neymar outscored and “out-assisted” the young Frenchman. Clouds began to gather, however, as rumours regarding the strained relationship between Neymar and striker Edinson Cavani emerged, their on-field bickering regarding penalty taking duties the most visible example of this. Injury then ruled Neymar out for the final few months of the season. With another Champions League failure for PSG as well, it perhaps wasn’t the dream first season Neymar had hoped for. For Mbappe, it had been a solid if not spectacular season, but considering his rapid rise and how little senior football he had actually played, his return was still impressive.
Come the World Cup and expectations were high for Neymar to take Brazil to glory and eradicate the memories of that 7-1 thrashing, a game, of course, which Neymar was injured for. Whilst the world did get glimpses of his undoubted talent, talk mostly centred around the time he spent on the floor. Whilst few can argue he is a targeted man on the pitch, there can be little excuse for some of the theatrics on display. This criticism only grew when Brazil exited the tournament at the quarter finals.
Mbappe, on the other hand, thrived under the pressure and put in a wonderful performance against Argentina, where his pace, skill, and utter confidence caused havoc for the Argentinian defence all afternoon, as he came away with two goals. If the world hadn’t previously taken notice of Mbappe, things had changed now. He went on to finish the tournament strongly and even scored in France’s final success to finish as joint second top scorer, as well as winning the award for best young player.
It’s that World Cup success which could prove to be the catalyst for this rivalry. Mbappe has now returned to PSG with a World Cup title to his name, with the world’s eyes on him, with rumoured bids in excess of the Neymar fee coming in and with the adoration of the French crowd. It’s reasonable to suggest Neymar will be feeling a little envious of his teammate. Come the opening game of the season against Caen, Neymar looked to get off to a flyer with Mbappe, lacking match sharpness left on the bench, and an early goal and assist certainly helped the PSG number 10. However, against Guingamp the following week, he struggled. Mbappe was called off the bench at half time to help turn around a one-goal deficit, and he duly obliged as he scored two, the latter of which was a brilliant finish, and instigated the move which led to Neymar’s winning of a penalty.
After the match, Mbappe was quick to deflect concerns that he had overtaken his teammate as the star of the team stating, “Neymar is a superstar, much more of star than me. I am not at that level yet. He has worked for many years at Barcelona to prove that and we have many players in this squad who are superstars”. Few, though, could argue that this game had the appearance of a rescue act from Mbappe to win his team the points.
With so much attention now on these players, and Mbappe clearly riding the crest of the wave at the moment, it’s going to be intriguing to see how both players cope. Neymar will want to desperately reinforce that this is still very much his team, but he has work to do, especially with regards to his image which took such a knock in the summer. Mbappe is the current man of the moment after his World Cup adventure, and has demonstrated humility – a quality Neymar often lacks – but at 19, still has a lot to learn and can’t afford to lose focus.
The big question for PSG is whether these two can work together in the same team. In their ideal world, they, of course, would spur each other on to constantly take their game higher and higher, but new PSG coach Thomas Tuchel has to be careful. Their efforts to try and outdo each other, whilst fine within limits, could have a considerable damaging effect on the team, and with Champions League the ultimate goal of the club, it could have a damaging effect on his own future too.
One thing that is certainly in no doubt; Neymar and Mbappe both represent the very best of the worlds footballers outside of Messi and Ronaldo. If their rivalry does indeed emerge, plus whatever that fallout may be with rumours continuing regarding Real Madrid’s interest, or whether it blossoms into a world leading partnership, it’s going to be very exciting to watch.