By Jerome Pugmire
PARIS (AP) — There’s a big hole in the Paris Saint-Germain locker room where Lionel Messi used to sit. The way things are going at under-pressure PSG, Kylian Mbappe may also soon be vacating his spot — and maybe even Neymar too.
Soccer fans around the world took a greater interest in watching the French league last season when PSG boasted superstars Messi, Mbappe and Neymar in attack.
Those PSG fans who thought it wise to jeer the record seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi last season may be regretting it now. Even more so if the club sells Mbappe to stop him leaving next summer for free as he intends.
With Messi gone to Inter Miami, it should fall to Mbappe and Neymar to lead the attack. But with Mbappe mired in a transfer standoff and Neymar still feeling his way back from his latest injury, there’s a possibility neither will start the home game against modest Lorient on Saturday.
Mbappe could be left out as PSG tries to sell him.
PSG has received a world record $332 million bid from Saudi Arabian team Al-Hilal for Mbappe, who is widely thought to want to join Real Madrid next season on a free transfer, complete with a massive signing-on fee. Mbappe has been training alone and was left off the recent tour to Japan and South Korea.
PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is reportedly hugely disappointed at Mbappe, having offered him a massive contract to sign a new contract in May last year reportedly worth 6 million euros ($6.6 million) per month.
Messi’s move to Miami came after Argentina’s World Cup winner didn’t sign the contract extension that Qatar-backed PSG offered him. If Mbappe goes as well, it would further deprive the French league of some star quality, dampening early interest in the season particularly outside of France.
“It’s a decision that goes beyond the players. It’s a question for the directors,” PSG captain Marquinhos said. “You always want great players next to you, I hope there will be a good solution so that he can come back and help us this season.”
France’s leading sports daily L’Equipe said on Monday evening that Neymar, who is under contract until 2025, also wants to leave this summer. PSG did not comment.
Losing Mbappe and Neymar would be a massive blow to the prestige of the French league, which opens with Nice hosting Lille on Friday night, but would also be the wake-up call PSG needs after yet another season of complacency and over-reliance on Mbappe and other star performers.
For while PSG won a record 11th French title last season, the second half of the campaign was dismal. Unbeaten before the World Cup started in November, PSG lost 10 matches overall in 2023 in all competitions.
PSG lost three home games in the league at Parc des Princes, which was once a fortress, including back-to-back defeats to Rennes and Lyon without scoring a goal.
Even Lorient, which finished in 10th, won 3-1 in Paris, while a 3-1 defeat in Monaco saw Marquinhos and Neymar arguing with sporting director Luis Campos, who is now at odds with the club’s hierarchy.
Christophe Galtier was fired and the former Barcelona coach Enrique was hired to replace him.
The pre-season tour saw PSG winning only one of its four games. Although Neymar scored twice in the last game — a 3-0 win against South Korean side Jeonbuk — the intensity for this Saturday’s game against Lorient will be higher and Enrique may not risk starting him.
But this gives a chance for fringe players and new recruits, like former Real Madrid attacking midfielder Marco Asensio, to stake an early claim.
Striker Hugo Ekitike and midfielder Fabian Ruiz were both disappointing last season and need to bounce back.
Mbappe’s 16-year-old brother Ethan Mbappe will be hoping to get some playing time in a midfield which could yet lose Italy veteran Marco Verratti to Al-Hilal after 10 years with PSG.
If Verratti and Mbappe leave, PSG’s season will start with a negative vibe surrounding the club and increase optimism that a contender can last the distance after Lens finished second by just one point last season.