Neymar's absence provides Di Maria a chance to continue shining for PSG
PARIS -- Paris Saint-Germain can move 12 points clear at the top of Ligue 1 on Sunday if they manage to beat Lyon at Groupama Stadium without injured superstar Neymar.
Bruno Genesio's men were second in Le Championnat prior to Marseille's win away at Caen on Friday, so PSG know that a 12-point lead over bitter rivals OM is possible if they can get the business done in Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes.
Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani and Neymar -- MCN -- have been back together lately and scoring goals, but with the Brazil international missing from Unai Emery's 18-man squad because of pain in his right thigh, the Spaniard is likely to replace him with in-form Angel Di Maria.
Di Maria deserves to continue to start at present, so Neymar's absence makes a tough decision for Emery more straightforward.
In an ideal world, Mbappe, Cavani, Neymar and the Argentina international could all have started, but the Basque tactician aligning all four in the same starting XI and within a 4-3-3 formation is not really practical -- especially not against a vibrant young Lyon side with players capable of hurting any unbalanced visitors.
So, Di Maria will start and as much as that is a blow for PSG because it means Neymar is not there, things could be much worse because this is not the lacklustre former Manchester United and Real Madrid star from a few months ago. This is 2018 Di Maria and he has been like a new signing for Les Parisiens since the resumption of action at the start of the new year.
"The idea is to play every match with our best players on the pitch," Emery said at his pregame news conference on Friday before Neymar was ruled out. "Each week, we play one match on Wednesday and then another on Sunday.
"If we beat Guingamp in the Coupe de France, that will mean we have an extra match to play -- we need all our players. It is not easy to play with real intensity when you play every three days.
"Since the beginning of the year, Angel and Marco [Verratti] have played a lot while the others have shared the game time a bit more. We want to be competitive in every match."
Was Emery suggesting that he might not start Di Maria and/or Verratti, or was he hinting that both have been so indispensable since the start of the new year that both are automatic starters at this moment in time?
Whatever the ex-Sevilla boss was getting at, Di Maria has been a revelation since returning to Paris after the winter break. Whether he has been playing for a move before the end of the January transfer window or has finally woken up ahead of the business end of the season, like he did last campaign, nobody can debate El Fideo's importance over the first four matches of 2018.
Di Maria has scored five goals and provided three assists from four appearances across all competitions, which included Rennes away in the Coupe de France, Amiens away in the Coupe de la Ligue, Nantes away in Ligue 1 and Dijon at home in Le Championnat. The 29-year-old has made at least one key contribution in every competitive game so far and when you bear in mind that Amiens and Nantes were both won by narrow margins, that amplifies his importance in those encounters -- particularly at Stade de la Beaujoire last weekend.
Playing in a front three with any two of the Mbappe, Cavani and Neymar MCN trio, Di Maria has looked at home recently more than at any other period this term.
The man from Rosario's presence in the starting XI has coincided with two of PSG's most devastating attacking displays of the season -- Rennes and Dijon -- where he scored twice and provided an assist in each. Di Maria scored lovely goals on both occasions, such as his sublime lofted opener against Dijon, and those strikes illustrate that his confidence is returning after deserting him during the first half of the campaign.
Although Neymar's absence is a blow for PSG, it does not have to be considered as serious as it would have been a few months ago now that Di Maria is back on song.
Les Parisiens' No. 11 will not be able to win the match on his own in Lyon, though, and he will need Mbappe and Cavani to combine well with him -- something they did not really do without Neymar in Nantes.
"Lyon are second, the stadium will be full and their team will be out to beat us," Emery acknowledged. "Every match we play is a special one for our opponents. We need to prepare well for the match and know exactly what we need to do.
"We want to grow, with our personality, and make sacrifices. Against Dijon, the team remained concentrated for 90 minutes. Just as the one to Nantes was, this trip to Lyon will be difficult.
"Every side has their differences, but Lyon are a great team."
Elsewhere, Emery welcomes Javier Pastore back to the squad but remains without Thiago Motta, which means Giovani Lo Celso should continue his excellent recent form in defensive midfield.
Along with Mbappe, Di Maria will be very important for PSG in Lyon, so Emery needs to focus on him and align the most complementary starting XI in order to overpower Les Gones in front of their home support.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.