Ligue 1 2018-19: Neymar's star risks being eclipsed by Mbappe

Kylian Mbappe burst on to the global stage in France's World Cup triumph, but where does that leave Paris Saint-Germain superstar Neymar?

PSG forwards Kylian Mbappe and Neymar   -  AFP

Neymar heads into the new Ligue 1 season at something of a crossroads, with the Brazil superstar seeking to make up for an underwhelming World Cup campaign.

After becoming the world's most expensive footballer when he completed a €222 million move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, many expected Neymar to force his way into contention for the 2018 Ballon d'Or, an award that has been duopolised by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo and Messi have won five Ballons d'Or apiece over the last decade but, going into a World Cup year, Neymar was widely tipped as the man to potentially break their run. But this year has not gone to plan for Neymar.

PSG was knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid with the forward having little impact, fracturing his foot before the second leg and missing the last two months of the domestic campaign as Unai Emery's side completed a clean sweep.

Neymar returned to fitness in time to lead Brazil into the World Cup, but only scored two goals as the Selecao was beaten by Belgium at the quarter-final stage.

Brazil's below-par performance in Russia contributed to Neymar being left off the shortlist for FIFA's Best awards - a year ago he was third behind Messi and winner Ronaldo.

Not only did Neymar fail to sparkle on the big stage, having missed Brazil's semi-final humiliation at the hands of Germany on home soil four years ago due to injury, he was roundly criticised for what was widely perceived to be play-acting and over-emotional behaviour throughout the World Cup.

Striking a conciliatory tone in an advertisement for sponsor Gillette, however, Neymar appeared to indicate he is ready to turn over a new leaf.

"Boot-stud on the shins. Kick in the spine. Stomp on the foot." said Neymar. "You may think I overreact, and sometimes I do. But the truth is I suffer on the pitch. You have no idea what I go through outside of it."

Whether or not Neymar's words translate to a change in his attitude on the field remains to be seen and the contrast with Kylian Mbappe, also heading into his second PSG season, could not be sharper.

Mbappe mostly played a back-up role to Neymar last term, scoring 13 times in 27 Ligue 1 appearances compared to the more impressive 19 goals in 20 games mustered by his colleague.

But Mbappe exploded on to the global stage at Russia 2018, his blistering pace and devastating finishing as he struck two goals in a 4-3 defeat of Argentina in the last 16 announcing him as the most exciting young player in the game.

Mbappe then hit a beauty in the World Cup final to become the youngest player to score in the showpiece since Pele in 1958 - earning congratulations from the Brazil icon himself.

Both players have been the subject of strong transfer speculation during the close-season, especially since Real Madrid's shock sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus in a deal worth €112 million.

Madrid moved to deny its interest in Mbappe and Neymar despite the duo being the most obvious transfer targets for the LaLiga giant, who was led to a third consecutive Champions League crown by Zinedine Zidane in May.

Neymar has long been linked with Madrid, dating back to before he left Barcelona, although a switch from Camp Nou to the Santiago Bernabeu would have been politically impossible for both clubs.

For that reason there were then suggestions Neymar's move to PSG was intended as a stopgap switch that would then allow him to join Madrid and take his place as Ronaldo's heir. 

Neymar, for his part, has insisted he is staying at PSG - at least for now - but the rumours will not go away.

Mbappe, however, has emerged as the more exciting prospect. The teenager is nine years younger than Neymar and universally liked around the world for his mature, humble attitude and thrilling style of play: Mbappe clearly loves playing football, whereas Neymar often appears burdened by the massive expectations thrust upon him.

Having moved from Barcelona partly to escape the shadow of Messi, Neymar is now at risk of seeing his star eclipsed by Mbappe, who has all the pieces of the puzzle to develop into the best player on the planet.

Neymar struggled to get on with strike partner Edinson Cavani last term, rowing with the Uruguay international over set-piece duties on a number of occasions during 2017-18.

Conflict with Mbappe was less easy to spot but there has been no shortage of reports claiming the pair do not have a cordial relationship, regardless of how much Neymar insists such talk is false.

All eyes will be on Neymar once more when PSG gets its Ligue 1 defence underway at home to Caen on August 12, new coach Thomas Tuchel now tasked with bringing out the Brazilian's best after succeeding Emery at the Parc des Princes.

It is impossible to see how any Ligue 1 rival can stop PSG cantering to the title again this season but, should Mbappe continue his rapid rise to the top, Neymar may find himself a spectator to the procession.

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