If Paris Saint-Germain is going to be challenged in Ligue 1 in its first season as a true superteam, there is a certain type of opponent, and a certain type of game, that will keep it within range of the pack. It is going to take commitment and defensive solidity. It is going to take strategic fouling and opportunistic attacking. It is going to take a rabid atmosphere, some fluky occurrences, and a little bit of luck.
All of those pieces fell into place Sunday night at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. And still, through it all, PSG remains unbeaten. Barely.
After Neymar was sent off for two yellow cards provoked by pure frustration, Edinson Cavani stepped up to a stoppage-time free kick that otherwise would have been Neymar’s. The Uruguayan, having also drew the foul, banged in an equalizer off the crossbar to steal a 2-2 draw.
Neymar had done his part earlier in the match. He was not consistently effective throughout the 90 minutes, but snuck a bobbling left-footed shot inside the far post to level the score at 1-1 in the 33rd-minute.
Throughout the match, though, and especially late on, his shins were on the receiving end of persistent hacks, kicks and nibbles. After Marseille re-took the lead through Florian Thauvin in the 78th minute, the fouls multiplied, and Neymar’s frustration boiled.
In the 85th minute, it finally began to get the better of him. He was shown two yellow cards in a three-minute span. The first was merited. The Brazilian winger unnecessarily went into a challenge after the play.
His second yellow, though, was absurd. Not necessarily incorrectly given. But definitely absurd.
He was fouled by two players at once, then taken down by a second challenge from a third player after the whistle had gone. He popped up and got in the face of Lucas Ocampos, the Marseille player who had tripped him. But he never lashed out, nor even touched Ocampos with any of his extremities. Ocampos blatantly flopped. The referee brandished yellows to both:
Neymar’s reaction, though, was avoidable. He had been wound up over a span of two hours. The derby was heated from the time Marseille fans began to fill the Velodrome. One end of the pitch that Neymar walked onto a few minutes before kickoff was enveloped by smoke.
The fans brought flares. They brought their indefatigable voices. And they used both. They also, unfortunately, used trash and other debris. They hurled it at Neymar whenever he waltzed to the corner flag to line up a set piece. Before one second-half corner could be taken, the game was delayed for around a minute so security could try to calm the situation. Riot police formed a wall around Neymar so he could finally put the ball back into play.
The atmosphere was surely part of the agitation. But so was Marseille’s performance. And not just the violent parts of it. The hosts played some great soccer in the first half, with PSG resigned to playing on the counter. They got a just reward when Luis Gustavo put all his might behind a 30-yard bullet:
Gustavo oozed both toughness and class in the first half. He bossed the midfield battle with Adrien Rabiot, Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti. Adil Rami and Hiroki Sakai also largely held Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in check on PSG’s left.
The second-half was fairly even, both on the scoreboard and on the field. But Thauvin knifed in front of Thiago Silva in the 78th minute to give Marseille a surprise lead:
But, a man down, Cavani cleverly drew contact on the left side of the box. With Neymar off the pitch, there was no competition for dead-ball duties. Cavani kept PSG unbeaten.
The Parisians have now won eight, drawn two and lost none in the league. They’re four points up on Monaco. Sunday’s two dropped points were their first with Neymar in the starting lineup. But it’s going to take many more performances like this to keep Ligue 1 close. And it’s going to take losses instead of draws to keep PSG from the title.
– – – – – –
Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.