With Ligue 1 set to get under way this weekend, eyes across the world will be on Paris Saint-Germain and Neymar, the world-record jewel in the crown of Unai Emery’s side.
The Brazil star has swapped Barcelona for the French capital in a bid to escape the shadow of Lionel Messi and stake a claim to be considered the finest footballer on the face of the earth.
While his frankly preposterous €222million price tag has caught most of the headlines, Neymar is sorely mistaken if he believes the spotlight will be his and his alone in what could be a fiercely-contested top flight in 2017-18.
Here, we take a look at five players who could overshadow the 25-year-old in his first season in France. One or two names might surprise you…
MARIO BALOTELLI (NICE)
Okay, it’s hardly original to suggest Mario Balotelli will not be far from a headline or two over the next nine months, but this could finally be the year when his football does (almost) all the talking.
Super Mario appeared to have found a new lease of life after leaving Liverpool for Nice last August, as the Italy striker scored six times in his first five league games.
The familiar concerns reared their heads as suspensions – due to three red cards – and arguments threatened to derail his time at the club, but Balotelli, for once, worked hard to regain his place and finished the season with five goals in six matches.
That form was enough to earn him a new one-year deal and he started 2017-18 with a goal in the first leg of the Champions League qualifying tie with Ajax. With the World Cup a year away, this could be 26-year-old’s chance to prove that he can match his considerable talent with sustained hard graft.
7 – @FinallyMario has scored seven goals in his last nine games with Nice in all competitions. Super.
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) July 26, 2017
JULIAN DRAXLER (PSG)
Another threat to Neymar’s limelight could come from within his own team.
Julian Draxler looked as though he was losing his way at Wolfsburg as they slid down the Bundesliga, but PSG gambled on the 23-year-old during the mid-season transfer window in a reported €35m deal.
It didn’t help them win the title or the coveted Champions League, but Draxler’s signing still looks to be a masterstroke. He hit the ground running under Emery with four goals in five appearances and he was consistently their brightest attacking midfield player in a season of transition and a fair amount of frustration.
Draxler followed up that form by helping Germany to win the Confederations Cup in Russia. He is a darling of the Parc des Princes now and unlikely to relinquish that status without a fight.
— PSG English (@PSG_English) July 29, 2017
KYLIAN MBAPPE (MONACO)
Perhaps the chief rival to Neymar’s mantle as Ligue 1’s biggest attraction will be Kylian Mbappe, but only if the prodigious young forward can be convinced to remain at Monaco.
The 18-year-old burst onto the scene last season, scoring 15 Ligue 1 goals as Leonardo Jardim’s men deprived PSG of the title, while firing the principality side to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Having also earned a first senior international appearance for France, Mbappe has become the hottest attacking property in European football and Real Madrid have been consistently linked with a big-money swoop for one of the remaining prized assets at Stade Louis II.
Mbappe reportedly submitted a transfer request this week, seemingly leaving the reigning champions with a tough fight on their hands to keep the exciting teenager.
However, should they somehow prove able to ward off considerable interest from across the continent, there may be a fascinating duel at the top of the scoring charts between Mbappe and Neymar in 2017-18.
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) June 14, 2017
DIMITRI PAYET (MARSEILLE)
His return to Ligue 1 was a frustrating saga for all concerned and Dimitri Payet’s form didn’t quite match the hopes Marseille had when they finally struck a £25m deal with West Ham last January.
Payet managed four goals and three assists in 15 Ligue 1 appearances but it was not enough to lift Marseille beyond a fifth-place finish, 16 points adrift of the Champions League places.
The attacking midfielder has arguably never had more to prove. He has yet to light up Stade Velodrome consistently since his return and his place in the France side is under threat from a host of younger players.
He will be 31 by the time of the World Cup next year; he’s unlikely to get another chance to play in one. It makes this a pivotal season for Payet and that might just bring out his very best.
BERTRAND TRAORE (LYON)
Having been part of the loanee conveyor belt at Chelsea for too long, Bertrand Traore jumped at the chance to sign for Lyon for €10m when the offer came in June.
The 21-year-old impressed in the Eredivisie for Vitesse and Ajax and his move to Ligue 1 represents the next step in a career that is beginning to show real promise.
Lyon have finally lost star striker Alexandre Lacazette and they will look to Traore to carry the goalscoring burden on those sizeable shoulders of his.
Traore complained that he was never given a chance to impress at Chelsea, but in a supremely attack-minded Lyon side and flanked by Nabil Fekir and Memphis Depay, he will certainly have that this year.
8 – Bertrand Traore (4 goals, 4 assists) has been involved in as many Europa League goals this season as Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Development.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 3, 2017
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