Presnel Kimpembe's rise hastens changing of the guard in PSG's central defence
PARIS -- The selection of Presnel Kimpembe over captain Thiago Silva for Paris Saint-Germain's 3-1 Champions League round-of-16 first-leg defeat away at Real Madrid felt like a changing of the guard at the time.
The Frenchman's mature performance at Santiago Bernabeu, despite the result, suggests that the Brazil international is no longer an undisputed starter.
Overseeing the unification of Kimpembe and Marquinhos as the French capital outfit's go-to central defensive pairing may prove to be one of coach Unai Emery's final acts as coach.
Selon @isabelapagliari @Europe1 #Emery en a marre du clan des Brésiliens. Il a enlevé #ThiagoMotta, puis humilié #ThiagoSilva. Sur le terrain, #Neymar se sent protégé par #ThiagoSilva. #Neymar n'a pas du tout apprécié. #Emery sait qu'il ne sera plus là, il a fait tapis. #RealPSG- Nabil Djellit (@Nabil_djellit) February 17, 2018
According to reports close to PSG's Brazilians, the Spaniard doubts that he will be in charge at Parc des Princes past the end of the season -- even though his contract will automatically extend for 12 more months if he guides the team to the Champions League semifinals or better -- and he has started to dismantle the dominant Portuguese-speaking clique in the dressing room.
So, how much of Emery's decision to start Kimpembe over Silva against Real was based on ability and how much of it was the Basque tactician's desire to tackle the not unfounded issue of Brazilian dominance of Les Parisiens' current squad?
As Kimpembe showed in Madrid, he is not short of talent.
The 22-year-old has displayed signs for some time now that he is ready for a regular starting role, such as his rock-solid showing in the 4-0 first-leg win over Barcelona at the same stage of last season's Champions League, before the second-leg capitulation under Silva's leadership.
Kimpembe was cool as a cucumber against Real and even if his PSG side conceded two unnecessary late goals, stand-in skipper Marquinhos, goalkeeper Alphonse Areola and substitute Thomas Meunier had more to do with Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo's efforts than this youth academy graduate.
Silva himself knows of Kimpembe's immense potential and in a well-timed interview with PSG's in-house TV show, "This Is Paris," the South American heaped praise upon his junior teammate.
"Presko (Presnel) always gives everything in training," said Silva. "He has improved greatly over the last two or three years. It is not easy for a young defender to progress like he has done. He has really shown huge potential and I am happy for him.
"I try to help all the time -- I have more experience. I have played more big matches, so I give advice, but that is not all. The quality is there. I am also an example for Marquinhos as well, so I just have to keep on working hard and keep helping both of them as much as I can.
"The rivalry, the competition for places, that is all part of football. I am 33 years old, I have two more years to play, then it will be those two who take the reins and lead the team forward."
Silva's estimation that he still has two years to go until it is time to hand over to Kimpembe and Marquinhos is perhaps a touch optimistic.
The Frenchman is a regular with Les Bleus under Didier Deschamps and has looked at his most mature when up against the likes of Barca and Real, so the fight is already at Silva's door.
Indeed, there are parallels between Kimpembe and fellow homegrown talent Adrien Rabiot's rise to a regular PSG starting role.
Kimpembe, albeit in a less precocious manner than Rabiot, has long known his value and the fact that he merits regular starts.
Emery's decision to strictly enforce a rotation policy in central defence that has seen Kimpembe start 17 times -- as many as Silva -- in Ligue 1 alone, suggests that the former Sevilla boss is also under no illusion that he must keep the Frenchman happy or risk losing him.
Rabiot truly convinced that he was ready to start for PSG when he replaced the injured Marco Verratti during a 1-0 Champions League group stage defeat away at Real back in Nov. 2015 and this year's Madrid loss has the potential to represent a similar turning point for Kimpembe.
"Having a winning mentality is so important," Silva said on "This Is Paris." "Every player, here at PSG, has that mentality. We all feel that pressure to win, but that is fine because when you play with this jersey, that is a responsibility that you want."
There have been questions, and not unfairly so, over whether Silva truly wants that level of responsibility anymore -- especially after his nightmarish 2014 World Cup -- but Kimpembe regularly shows that he does want it and that he has the right mentality for it.
PSG's No. 3 is not yet running for the captaincy, although that could happen in the future, but he is firmly in contention for Silva's starting role.
Regardless of Emery's thoughts on his team's dominant Brazilian contingent, Kimpembe's performances have largely merited his emergence as a genuine alternative to Silva in any first-choice starting XI.
It is now up to the 33-year-old former AC Milan man to either rise to the challenge and fight for his future as an undisputed starter and skipper, or step aside for the Frenchman and possibly fellow Brazilian Marquinhos (third in line to the captaincy) on both fronts.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.