PARIS (AP) — Was that really Neymar?
You had to blink and look again, but yes, it was him, running down the left touchline into stoppage time desperately trying to keep the ball in play last weekend during a 1-1 home draw with Monaco. in the Parc des Princes.
Neymar, the self-indulgent prince of PSG for so many years, worked as hard as anyone on the pitch. Yes, you read the last part right.
In what is great news for Brazil before the World Cup in Qatara slim, athletic Neymar looks fitter and sharper than he has for several years after being dogged by concerns about his fitness, questions about his lifestyle choices and dragged down by nagging foot injuries.
Since joining PSG for a world-record €222m (then $263m) in 2017, Neymar has appeared in just 92 league games out of a possible 190, a remarkably low 48%.
Then there was his attitude, his irritating attempts to humiliate opponents or berate teammates for not giving him the ball, only to fall short when PSG really needed him deep in the Champions League.
That seems to have changed too.
There has been no histrionics, no rolling on the ground like in the 2018 World Cup and every subsequent season with PSG except this one.
Neymar’s attitude has changed to the point that he even acted as a peacemaker at the end of the match against Monaco when several players were involved in an outburst.
Oh, and not to mention his hat full of goals.
Neymar’s penalty against Monaco took him to eight goals in five games, including the pre-season French Champions Trophy. He has added six assists for good measure, which means he has been involved in nearly three goals per game.
It’s no wonder, then, that sports daily L’Equipe has him at the top of the charts with an average score of 8/10 in weekly player ratings, one point higher than the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner. Gold Lionel Messi.
“He is the one who brings balance to the front,” PSG coach Christophe Galtier said of Neymar.
With Galtier pushing PSG players out of their comfort zone and Neymar at 30, he appears to be close to his best. That bodes well for Brazil at the World Cup, which he will enter as one of the most scrutinized players. In Qatar, Neymar could even break Pelé’s national record of 77 goals: he has 74 for Brazil.
Neymar is linking up with Messi as they did during their Barcelona heyday, where they formed one of the best attacking partnerships in recent history known as the MSN, with Luis Suarez as the other star.
Now it is the MNM (Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe) that causes the nightmares of the French defenses. In four league games, PSG have scored 18 goals, with Messi and Mbappé sharing seven between them.
It helps that Galtier is playing with Neymar further up the pitch, in a 30-40 meter zone. This means Neymar is dropping back much less to take the ball and launch attacks on his own, which hasn’t worked out in recent seasons as injuries and lack of fitness played against him.
It also meant he was fresh enough to chase down the loose ball on Sunday night.
MESSAGE FROM SAINT MAXIMUS
Given France’s enviable attacking options, Newcastle striker Allan Saint-Maximin knows he will have to do something incredible to earn a first call-up to his national team for the World Cup.
However, you are giving him a good chance.
A week ago, Saint-Maximin dismantled the best defense in the English Premier League with a man-of-the-match display against Manchester City in a 3-3 draw, and followed it up with a cheeky tweet at France manager Didier Deschamps.
“I hope Didier Deschamps had his Canal+ codes,” Saint-Maximin wrote, referring to the French television channel that broadcasts EPL matches.
On Sunday, Saint-Maximin, one of the most entertaining players in English football, starred again as he scored a brilliant volley from the edge of the box to save Newcastle from a 1-1 draw at Wolverhampton.
You don’t need Twitter to send Deschamps a message. His performances on the field are doing that.
Saint Maximin, 25, has played for France’s youth teams, from under-16 to under-21, but never for the senior team.
THE NEW STAR OF BELGIUM
Charles De Ketelaere could be just what Belgium needs to transform from top-ranked contender to World Cup champion.
The 21-year-old playmaker has made a huge impact in just three games for Italian champions AC Milan, already drawing comparisons to former Rossoneri Kaká.
The baby-faced, blond-haired De Ketelaere, or “CDK” as he is known, lit up the San Siro with his crosses and an assist for Milan’s first goal in a 2-0 win over Bologna on Saturday in their first opening. since he arrived from Club Brugge in a €32 million ($32.5 million) transfer.
Paolo Maldini, Milan’s great captain and now sporting director, was focused on De Ketelaere from the start of the transfer window.
“Charles is very talented,” Milan coach Stefano Pioli said. “He’s already shown great things, he’s smart and he’s definitely going to get better.”
While De Ketelaere has only scored once in eight appearances for Belgium, he joins an attacking team that already boasts one of the world’s best midfielders in Kevin De Bruyne and expert striker Romelu Lukaku.
Belgium, No. 2 behind Brazil, have been at or near the top of the FIFA rankings for years, but their best recent finish was third place at the 2018 World Cup.