Soccer

PSG-Marseille: How Neymar and Alvaro Gonzalez’s messy spat sparked a new fire into Le Classique

PARIS — Le Classique returned with a bang this season after spending years as more of a footnote to Paris Saint-Germain’s domestic domination than an actual contest between two sworn enemies with Neymar a significant influence in the revival of the grudge match with Olympique de Marseille.

Les Parisiens beat Les Phoceens 2-1 at RC Lens’ Stade Bollaert on Wednesday to win the Trophee des Champions but also to take a measure of revenge after OM won an ill-tempered Ligue 1 meeting 1-0 at Parc des Princes in a match that saw five red cards and 14 yellows brandished.

Although he was only fit enough for a 25-minute substitute appearance in northern France, Neymar packed a lot into that cameo with the winning goal from the penalty spot to cap a lively showing in which he was target of heavy tactics from the likes of Marseille’s Alvaro Gonzalez and more fouls than anybody else over the entire 90 minutes.

The Brazil international was not content to end the fun with his clown celebration dedicated to the Spaniard as he proceeded to give a very clear indication of his desire to commit his future to PSG with his post-match celebrations before continuing to take the fight to Alvaro via social media.

Neymar, 28, asked the OM man, “king, right?” with Alvaro replying that his parents always taught him to “take out the trash” to which the €222 million man retorted “and you forgot how to win titles” before Alvaro responded with an image of Pele and “eternally in the shadow of the king.”

The very public exchange finished with Neymar laughing and telling his opponent that he is in his shadow claiming to have made the former Villarreal CF, RCD Espanyol and Real Zaragoza man “famous” in a nod of the head towards their infamous spat back in mid-September.

That night in Paris, Neymar accused Alvaro of racism and the former Barcelona man was then accused of the same and although no further action was taken against either player due to insufficient evidence, the rivalry had already boiled over to levels unseen for nearly 20 years.

Not since the days of Fabrice Fiorese’s 2004 betrayal in swapping the capital for Provence and Sylvain Armand seeing red for savaging him 20 minutes into his Classique baptism to the delight of the projectile-throwing Parc des Princes crowd has there been as much mutual vitriol.

Le Classique did not need a racist scandal to be put back on the European soccer map, but it did need a major injection of genuine emotion on both sides for PSG to take Marseille seriously again and for OM to see themselves as closer to equals than they have been in many years.

A combination of Neymar, Andre Villas-Boas and a series of closer encounters in recent years has created this equilibrium and although September’s result was the first Marseille win since 2011 at Stade Velodrome and even longer in Paris, it had been on the cards for some time.

Back in October 2017, Neymar’s first Classique with PSG, he scored, was targeted by fans throwing objects and was then sent off for two bookings as OM came within seconds of a 2-1 win only to be denied by a spectacular Edinson Cavani free-kick deep into injury time — greeted like a win in Paris.

The following February, it was toward the end of a 3-0 win over Marseille that Neymar suffered the first of his two crippling metatarsal injuries that derailed his first two seasons at Parc des Princes and clashes with RC Strasbourg Alsace have similarly gained in animosity due to being the other villains.

Neymar aside, Rudi Garcia came close to engineering a victory over PSG in late 2018 when Kylian Mbappe’s introduction as a substitute for disciplinary reasons — he and Adrien Rabiot were late to Thomas Tuchel’s pre-game meeting — changed the game for the visitors to result in a 2-0 win.

However, it was Villas-Boas who made the tactical breakthrough with a disciplined and in-your-face setup designed to provoke PSG to prevent them from dictating the game which is what happened and enable Marseille to leave Paris with all three points earlier this season.

The Portuguese played pantomime villain on Wednesday with his bitter bleating post-match that PSG were celebrating “as if they had won the Champions League,” but he has also made OM more credible again in recent seasons and deserves credit for that and returning France’s only European champions to continental soccer’s top table.

Now that the rivalry no longer feels as one-sided as it has been at times since the start of the Qatar Sports Investments era when the champions have racked up four goals in the first half or demoralized Marseille 5-1 at the Velodrome, the animosity has started to return.

Bans on travelling fans due to fears of hooliganism have also hampered Le Classique’s rebirth and will likely continue to do so when COVID-19 finally becomes less of an issue, but it very much feels like this campaign has witnessed the restoration of this classic European soccer rivalry.

Soccer without supporters feels empty at this time but years of a rivalry with fans but without a feeling of genuine competition has also been damaging in its own way — we could now be witnessing the beginning of gloriously dirty new chapter in already storied history of this grudge match.


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