Neymar must use Nantes visit to PSG to shift narrative back to positives
PARIS -- All eyes will be on Neymar when Paris Saint-Germain welcome FC Nantes to Parc des Princes in Ligue 1 on Saturday.
Even though he has been with the Brazil national team for the past fortnight -- albeit in Paris, Lille and then London -- the samba superstar has been headline news pretty much the entire time.
Much of the reason for that has been speculation over Neymar's happiness since joining PSG, whether he gets on well with teammate Edinson Cavani and coach Unai Emery, if he feels above playing against the likes of Angers and whether he has been plotting a move to former club Barcelona's bitter rivals Real Madrid all along.
The 25-year-old breaking down into tears during a postmatch press conference after Brazil's friendly win over Japan at Stade Pierre Mauroy provoked pity in some quarters but ultimately only served to intensify the scrutiny on him.
Neymar has insisted that he is happy in Paris but that has not stopped the wave of chatter, so the only answer is to show that he is genuinely happy on the pitch with his new team.
Speaking in an interview on PSG's official website, the former Barca and Santos man was glowing about his first few months in the French capital.
Neymar does not give off the impression that he is only thinking short-term with the giants of Le Championnat and outlined his ambitions for at least the next three years.
"Life is different -- it's an amazing experience and I hope that it's going to be a great year in my life," Les Parisiens' No. 10 said of his new life in France. "We want to go as far as possible in all competitions with Paris. This is what I came for here in Paris.
"The Champions League is the most important. To be honest, we want to win all the competitions we're in. The whole team wants to make this come true. We want to win as a team first and then think about individual awards and trophies.
"Champions! I hope that we will win everything we can. We will do our utmost in order to win all the trophies we can."
Neymar is not the only one at PSG who has been feeling the heat during the most recent international break.
Coach Emery has also faced countless questions over the Brazil international's happiness and the pair's relationship.
The Spaniard's response in his prematch press conference Thursday was logical -- Neymar, like all human beings, is simply getting used to his new surroundings and adapting to the recent changes in his life after relocating to Paris.
"It is the same story for every player that changes club, that has a new coach, new teammates and a new city to live in -- the adaptation process takes time," Emery told journalists at Camp des Loges. "His teammates, the coaching staff and the club have to help him settle in.
"It is the same with all the new players -- he is feeling better and better. However, what happens on the pitch is the most important thing. When the team is getting the results, everyone is happy.
"All these rumours do not matter at all. What counts is the conversations we have between ourselves. We are very happy with him. He will triumph here in Paris."
Admittedly, Nantes at home on a Saturday evening in wintery Paris is not the sexiest of fixtures -- thoughts of postmatch vin chaud or hot chocolate in the City of Light at night aside -- but Claudio Ranieri's men are actually one of PSG's closest rivals in Ligue 1 at this moment in time.
Fifth-placed in the French top-flight coming into this weekend but still nine points behind their hosts, the Italian tactician's Canaris side are unlikely to be able to mount a real title challenge but they could easily finish in the top three.
The likes of Neymar, Cavani and Kylian Mbappe will be tasked with trying to find a way past the third-tightest defence in Ligue 1 (nine goals conceded), behind only PSG themselves and a surprisingly resolute Montpellier back line (both have shipped just eight goals) -- matched only by their equally anaemic attack.
The capital club will face tougher challenges this season but as La Paillade and bitter rivals Marseille have already proved -- Emery's men can be stopped if they feel they are above their opponents.
"Last season, Nantes did a great job under Sergio Conceicao and the team has maintained that standard under Claudio," the Basque tactician said of opposite number Ranieri. "They are very well organised, very strong and it is difficult to score against them.
"Ranieri has fantastic footballing experience. He won the Premier League with Leicester and that was not easy, to say the least!
"He has clear ideas about the game and they are very hard to beat. We need to prepare well, respect our opponents and be patient to create and exploit the spaces."
Emery has been boosted by the news that he will only really be missing Thomas Meunier against Nantes.
Thiago Motta, who now faces surgery on a lingering knee problem, has already been absent for a lengthy period, while Presnel Kimpembe is suspended but captain Thiago Silva and Marquinhos' lack of the usual post-international break travel fatigue means the Frenchman may well have only been a substitute anyway.
Neymar has dominated the buildup to the clash with Ranieri's Nantes for the wrong reasons, so the Brazilian superstar must make sure those same people cannot stop talking about him afterward but this time for the right reasons.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.