Ligue 1 2018-19: Neymar's star risks being eclipsed by Mbappe
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 €222million 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 were 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 were beaten by Belgium at the quarter-final stage.
Posso dizer que é o momento mais triste da minha carreira, a dor é muito grande porque sabíamos que poderíamos chegar, sabíamos que tínhamos condições de irmos mais além, de fazer história .. mas não foi dessa vez. Difícil encontrar forças pra querer voltar a jogar futebol, mas tenho certeza que Deus me dará força suficiente pra enfrentar qualquer coisa, por isso nunca deixarei de te agradecer Deus, até mesmo na derrota... porque eu sei que o teu caminho é muito melhor do que o meu Muito feliz em fazer parte desse time, estou orgulhoso de todos, interromperam nosso sonho mas não tiraram da nossa cabeça e nem dos nossos corações . . . @nogueirafoto
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."
Eu caí. Mas só quem cai, pode se levantar. Você pode continuar jogando pedra. Ou pode jogar essas pedras fora e me ajudar a ficar de pé. Porque quando eu fico de pé, parça, o Brasil inteiro levanta comigo. #umnovohomemtododia
— Neymar Jr (@neymarjr) July 30, 2018
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.
Teenagers to score in a #WorldCupFinal
* Kylian Mbappe
That is all. pic.twitter.com/Cy3RvGOoV7
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) July 15, 2018
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 €112m.
Madrid moved to deny their interest in Mbappe and Neymar despite the duo being the most obvious transfer targets for the LaLiga giants, who were 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.
Best Young Player of the WorldCup pic.twitter.com/CLOMJX3ro1
— Kylian Mbappé (@KMbappe) July 16, 2018
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 get their 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.