PSG hoping to get Marco Verratti started vs. Toulouse
PARIS -- Paris Saint-Germain welcome Toulouse to Parc des Princes on Sunday for Neymar's home debut, and the party atmosphere created by the Brazilian superstar's €222 million transfer from Barcelona earlier this month is likely to continue.
Assuming he is fit enough to feature, that will suit midfielder Marco Verratti in particular. The Italy international was at the heart of the first of two major transfer battles between PSG and Barca this summer.
After flirting heavily with the Spanish giants, Verratti ultimately pledged his future to the French capital outfit and replaced his agent Donato Di Campli with Mino Raiola -- possibly with one eye on the future after sporting director Antero Henrique and chairman and CEO Nasser Al-Khelaifi made it clear it will be very difficult for him to leave while under contract with Les Parisiens.
PSG won that battle with Barca and they obviously triumphed in the next one too as Neymar is now the capital club's new star No. 10 and the darling of Ligue 1.
Bringing in a player of the world-class calibre who Verratti was reportedly demanding, such as Neymar, perhaps illustrates why the 24-year-old opted to stay put this summer.
However, as well as proving that PSG are still ambitious and that their dream of UEFA Champions League success is not dead, Neymar's arrival has also taken some pressure away from the Italian.
The man from Pescara became the default figurehead of Oryx Qatar Sports Investments' project when Zlatan Ibrahimovic left for Manchester United on a free transfer and as well as being a heavy burden for such a young player to carry, it also brought intense scrutiny with it.
Verratti was not only viewed as part of a dysfunctional PSG side that only found its feet during the second half of coach Unai Emery's debut campaign -- arguably once the damage to their Championnat title hopes had already been done -- he also came under fire for other aspects of his game that he previously got away with, such as his injury proneness and his unhealthy lifestyle away from the pitch -- notably his liking for cigarettes.
Since his arrival in Paris, Neymar has -- understandably -- taken centre stage and that is ideal for Verratti at this moment. While the six-time French champions have started the season smoothly in a collective sense, their popular No. 6 has been off the pace individually.
Verratti was sluggish in the Trophee des Champions victory over Monaco in Tangier, Morocco, and that lacklustre form was carried over into the Ligue 1 wins against Amiens and Guingamp. This slow start to the campaign is largely down to the fact that his preseason consisted of a total of one half of International Champions Cup action against Juventus in the USA.
Asked whether Verratti is fully fit to face Toulouse after picking up a knock in training earlier in the week, Emery admitted at his prematch news conference on Friday that he is waiting for more from the man nicknamed Gufetto or Petit Hibou (the little owl).
"Marco is still very competitive," the Spanish tactician told journalists at Camp des Loges. "He puts his distinctive mark on the team's play.
"I am looking for him to bring more to our play, though, especially in attack. I want him to have a stronger presence in the opposition's penalty area and I want him involved in more goals than last season.
"He is an extremely important player for us."
There is no doubt that when at his best -- or close -- Verratti walks into the PSG starting XI. However, the Italian has not started this campaign in the brightest of fashions and it is impossible to argue to the contrary. Recent suggestions of a lucrative contract extension -- yes, another -- need justifying on the pitch first before they become a reality.
Since the start of preseason, Verratti has already shown some of the fragility that has disrupted his last few terms and he is clearly not as match fit as he should be, which has been demonstrated by a few below-par performances.
Neymar will undoubtedly continue to hog the limelight against Toulouse this weekend but instead of an individual masterclass from the South American, a strong showing from Verratti as part of a collective effort that sees his new teammate get a maiden home goal might be the best thing for PSG.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.