Neymar's return is good news for PSG, but leaky defence is real problem
PARIS -- Paris Saint-Germain will take to the Roazhon Park pitch on Saturday for their penultimate Ligue 1 fixture of 2017 against Rennes, and Neymar will be back in the fold for the leaders of Le Championnat in Brittany.
However, equally as important to the return of their talisman for Unai Emery's men this weekend is that they tighten up in defence after leaking 11 goals in their last eight matches across all competitions.
Neymar will be reinvigorated after his suspension for the league win over Lille, and his trip back home to Brazil for family reasons gave him a bit of a breather -- despite involving significant travel -- and also included missing out on the Coupe de la Ligue victory away at Strasbourg.
After scoring six times and assisting five more goals during his first six Ligue 1 outings, the Brazilian superstar has only found the back of the net three more times with one additional assist from his last six.
It is not the end of the world for Neymar, but it is a noticeable drop in domestic form, even if he largely maintained his consistent Champions League form until the defeat away at Bayern Munich.
Now that the 25-year-old is back and available again, Emery is not afraid that his recent visit home will have left him fragile and susceptible to immediate injury.
"Neymar has returned from Brazil," the Spaniard told journalists at his prematch news conference Friday. "He is fine, and he should be available for Rennes.
"He is used to travelling -- he travels a lot with the national team. I think he is doing well physically. He trained normally on Thursday and everything is normal. I do not think there is any risk of injury."
Just playing might not damage Neymar, but Rennes' pitch is notoriously unforgiving -- just ask former PSG players Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Luiz and Alex, who were all cautious of it because of their knee issues.
It is just one of the things that makes Rennes an away day to be wary of, along with the lively supporters and a team that always boasts one or two talented youngsters.
PSG have only won 1-0 there both of the last times they have met in Ligue 1, so this may well be another tight encounter, but Neymar could be the difference and help the men from the capital break down a middling defence and then plunder a few goals.
Emery knows the importance of his team's away form recovering after defeats on the road in Strasbourg and Munich.
"In football, it is always harder to play away than it is at home," the Basque tactician said. "Home sides play with more motivation thanks to the supporters. They are more aggressive.
"We want to play away like we play at home. We work hard in training to reproduce the same performances away."
Key to that will be sorting out a leaky defence and one that was already shipping goals before captain Thiago Silva suffered an injury against Bayern.
Eight of the 11 goals conceded since November have come away from home, and this untimely run has coincided with Marquinhos suffering a big drop in form and attacking full-backs Dani Alves and Layvin Kurzawa being more exposed than usual.
Marquinhos needs to pull himself together unless Thiago Motta is handed a start, which is unlikely after his lengthy absence with a knee issue, he will be captain, and the armband is looking a little too big for the mature 23-year-old right now.
Presnel Kimpembe is making the most of his run of games in Silva's absence, while Yuri Berchiche should be able to profit from Kurzawa's continued unavailability.
Emery has a headache at right-back after Alves scored away at Strasbourg from left back and Thomas Meunier notched two assists from the right, but whatever the decision, the back four should be more balanced and -- in theory -- tighter.
If the influential Wahbi Khazri can be silenced at one end and Neymar can do the business at the other, it should be three points and a restored nine-point lead at the Ligue 1 summit for PSG after Monaco beat St-Etienne to cut into the margin on Friday.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.