Neymar proves PSG are playing by his rules -- at Cavani's expense
PARIS -- Before anything is said about Paris Saint-Germain's late penalty in Wednesday's 8-0 Ligue 1 win over Dijon at Parc des Princes, Neymar deserves praise -- lots of it. The Brazilian superstar was thoroughly unplayable, scoring four goals -- including a delightful lofted free kick and a superb solo effort -- and assisting two more in a merciless performance.
The French capital outfit will be dreaming over the next few weeks about him replicating that sort of form at the Santiago Bernabeu against two-time defending champions Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16 next month.
PSG's attacking performance was so savage that Dijon goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet broke down in tears of frustration towards the end of the match.
"Even though I am a goalkeeper and there is a risk that he will thoroughly torment me, this is super news for Ligue 1," tweeted the Frenchman of Neymar minutes after his arrival was made official by Les Parisiens last August. Reynet's words proved prophetic.
Since his arrival, Neymar has been an absolute joy to watch. Every game featuring him is an event and one that creates excitement for journalists as much as the supporters at Parc des Princes or wherever PSG happen to be playing.
However, despite all of this, it is impossible to turn a blind eye towards how he handled the 83rd-minute penalty -- taken and scored by him to make it 8-0 -- when you know the context of the tensions between Neymar and Edinson Cavani since the former's arrival last summer.
Amid substantial whistling, the man from Mogi Das Cruzes converted the late spot kick, which had been won by the Uruguay international, who had levelled Zlatan Ibrahimovic's all-time record of 156 goals for PSG and needed one more to make the title his own.
Why was it controversial? Was it "Penaltygate" all over again? No. This was different.
PSG coach Unai Emery said towards the end of last year that a decision had been made regarding penalties moving forward and since then, Neymar has taken most -- if not all -- of the spot kicks. That seemed to be the case on Wednesday and Cavani appeared to grudgingly accept it.
PSG's penalty vs. Dijon and who took it is not the issue here, though. The issue is the fact that Neymar was presented with the chance to make a gesture towards Cavani for the good of the team and instead he chose what was best for him.
Why did the former Barcelona man's handling of the penalty matter to the squad? Simple. Since the original "Penaltygate" incident, Neymar, Cavani and almost every other player have been quizzed on the issue of spot kicks and the relationship between the Brazilian and the Uruguayan.
It took months for "Penaltygate" to finally be swept under the rug and Neymar, like Cavani, was almost certainly relieved to see the end of it.
Remember, this was a player who was pushed to tears during a post-match news conference with the Brazil national team because of the severity of continued questioning over his relationship with El Matador and Emery.
It does not take a genius to see the opportunity at 7-0 up against a midtable Ligue 1 side with a porous defence, a hat trick already in the bag along with two assists, to earn even greater plaudits with a token act of generosity that would have spoken volumes about the unity within the group.
Neymar and his PSG teammates would have appeared infallible going into the Madrid matches considering their strong start to 2018, but his decision to take the penalty for himself has reopened old wounds and changed the debate from the taker of the penalties to his relationship with Cavani and some of his teammates.
The €222 million man has essentially provided the ammunition with which the pressure can be turned up on the French giants heading into what looks like a winnable two-legged affair with Zinedine Zidane's men.
Cavani's record is not the point here either, but the relationship between the two talented attackers is everything. Both can say what they like when they speak publicly, but actions on the pitch speak louder than words off it and Neymar showed against Dijon that even in the easiest of situations to think about others, he will put himself first.
Perhaps it comes back to the decision that Emery mentioned last year that there will be a different penalty taker for each match, regardless of who wins the spot kick?
Is there a set hierarchy and Neymar was just following the Spaniard's orders as he is now the designated kicker, as Thomas Meunier suggested post-match when he also branded the whistling supporters "a little ungrateful"?
Captain Thiago Silva and Emery's limp replies on the topic did not help either, with the skipper saying "the records will come -- Edinson scores all the time! We still have plenty of matches left," and the coach saying "Edinson is our goal-getter. Each player has a role in the team. For me, Neymar is the leader but together, we can do many good things."
On top of this, did Neymar even know that Cavani was one goal away from a new record? There are endless questions and angles on the incident. but the reality is that ultimately, he took the penalty for himself.
Neymar is a brilliant individual player and he serves the team well with assists for many teammates, Cavani included, but goals laid on by him do not necessarily indicate that he is a team player. It is possible to look good while also providing an assist, just like Neymar did for substitute Kylian Mbappe against Dijon.
Neymar's thirst for Ballon d'Or success and individual recognition is understandable; he is well and truly good enough to break up the dominance of former Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi and fading Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo at that level. However, it does not have to stop him from being a good teammate and putting the squad first once in a while.
The press reaction to his Dijon display was positive enough already, imagine how a big-hearted gesture like that towards Cavani could have amplified that.
Ibrahimovic is a PSG icon because of what he achieved with the capital club without ever really investing any emotion in anything the team did unless it benefitted him directly.
Cavani is already a PSG legend because of his attitude, the heart, desire and commitment that he shows on the pitch week in, week out -- similar to the reciprocated love shared by Pauleta and the supporters.
When PSG said goodbye to Ibrahimovic, fans were sad but they got over it. When Cavani leaves, whether that is this summer or later, most of those same supporters will feel his loss far greater than they did the super Swede's because they will miss the man.
Neymar is going the same way as Ibrahimovic at this moment in time: somebody who looks like they will achieve plenty in Paris without any real feeling being attached to it. Perhaps that is all that matters to the Brazilian -- the success -- and it does not matter to him where he achieves it, whether it is in Paris, Barcelona, back in Brazil or some other location, and that thinking is what enabled him to be as cold as he was against Dijon.
Whatever the reason, Neymar missed a great chance to end speculation over his and Cavani's relationship. Maybe he wanted that, because now everything is clear: this is Neymar's team, these are Neymar's rules and anybody with a face that does not fit will be given the cold shoulder.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.