Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League trip to Real Madrid on Wednesday night is not only arguably the tie of the last 16; it also represents a moment of truth for the French club and their £200m gamble on Neymar.
PSG have been steadily building since their Qatari takeover in 2011. They now boast a very strong squad, a highly competent manager in Unai Emery, and are very confident in what they do. Domestically, they have steamrolled the opposition.
More recently they have also established themselves in the Champions League. I remember seeing them play Chelsea off the park in 2014 yet still go out, but they avenged that tie in the following two seasons and are now regulars in the latter stages.
It’s no secret that this competition is their No1 target. They need to win it to join the ranks of the truly great clubs; until they lift the European Cup there will always be doubts about their ability to do so.
That is why they smashed the world transfer record to sign Neymar from Barcelona last year. They don’t need him for winning Ligue 1; he is there to make the difference against the very top teams, such as Real.
If there was ever a good time to play the holders, then this is it. Real will still believe they can win the tie but their poor form has left them vulnerable and under pressure. Cristiano Ronaldo is another year older and bears too much of the goalscoring burden, while manager Zinedine Zidane is on a knife-edge.
Ironically, the biggest negative for PSG right now is Neymar’s rumoured unhappiness in France and speculation that he will join Real at the end of the season.
From the outside, it appears that he isn’t motivated by French football, where top crowds are 55,000 rather than the 90,000 he was used to at Barca. It would be no surprise to me if he left in the summer.
But I don’t think that will lessen his performance against Real. Nights like this – indeed, the next three months – are why he is at PSG. I think he’d like to leave as a success and if he can deliver the Champions League then he will have done his job.
Facing potential suitors in Real also shouldn’t be an issue. If he were to perform poorly for some reason they would still want to sign him, but in any case I think the occasion will motivate him further because he is a top player.
Then there is the Ballon d’Or. Neymar wants to be known as the best player in the world but to do that he must surpass two all-time greats in Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. This is the stage on which he can do it.
He’s big already, of course, but a display that gets the whole game talking about him can take him to the next level – and help do the same for PSG.