Interminable transfer rumours surrounding Neymar continue to swirl unabated as the new Ligue 1 season kicks off this weekend with defending champions Paris Saint-Germain launching their assault for a seventh title in eight attempts.
Thomas Tuchel’s side began their campaign by lifting the Champions Trophy in Shenzhen, China, gaining a modicum of revenge with a 2-1 victory over Rennes, the team that shocked PSG in last season’s French Cup final.
As Neymar served the last of a three-match ban, incurred after a spat with a fan following April’s shootout loss, Kylian Mbappe pleaded with the Brazilian to stay during their trip to the Far East.
“Everyone loves him and I love him so much,” Mbappe said of Neymar, the world’s most expensive player who has been linked with a return to his former club Barcelona.
“I don’t want him to leave the team, obviously. I want him to stay. When you think about his situation and then he plays very well and he co-operates with the team you can see what he means to us.”
The Brazilian suffered another injury-plagued season, missing PSG’s embarrassing Champions League defeat by Manchester United, as well as Brazil’s triumphant Copa America campaign.
The 27-year-old has also been embroiled in widely publicised rape allegations, vehemently denied, which were eventually dismissed by Brazilian police for lack of evidence.
Amid Neymar’s tumult Mbappe, who took the 2018 World Cup by storm, tormented Ligue 1 defences to the tune of 33 goals to emerge as the club’s true poster boy.
Mbappe moved to quell any doubts over his own plans, having caused alarm when he spoke of playing “elsewhere” at the French league awards ceremony in May.
“I think it wasn’t the right place (to say that),” the 20-year-old said while in China. “I’d like to say sorry to the players who were there because I spoiled the party.”
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Last season’s title race quickly turned into a cakewalk for PSG, but after a domestic treble in 2017/18 under Unai Emery, his successor fell short in both domestic cups.
– ‘It hurts still’ –
Despite that disappointment, the brief for Tuchel a year on remains unchanged with PSG desperately craving success in Europe, after another calamitous exit.
“It hurts a lot, it hurts still that we did not go through,” midfielder Julian Draxler told AFP, five months on.
“But from the potential in the team, we are ready to go far in the Champions League.”
While PSG has crashed out at the last-16 stage in Europe each of the past three years, it is almost unfathomable they could be dethroned in France with last season’s chief rivals losing a number of key players.
Lille sold leading scorer Nicolas Pepe to Arsenal for a reported £72 million ($87 million), while Lyon head into the new campaign without Nabil Fekir, Tanguy Ndombele and Ferland Mendy.
Fekir left his boyhood club for Real Betis, Mendy signed for Real Madrid, and Ndombele became Tottenham’s record signing in a deal that could rise to 70 million euros.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lyon has struggled in pre-season under new boss Sylvinho, the former Barcelona and Arsenal full-back.
Sporting director and club legend Juninho, who handpicked his compatriot to replace Bruno Genesio, said the start of the campaign would be a “moment of truth” after limp displays against Liverpool and Bournemouth.
The arrival of Andre Villas-Boas, who was out of football for 18 months, at Marseille makes for an intriguing prospect.
The former protege of Jose Mourinho has pledged to do his all to restore the 1993 Champions League winners to the top after they failed to qualify for Europe last season, prompting the dismissal of Rudi Garcia.