Edinson Cavani has earned the right to be PSG’s first-choice penalty-taker and deserves more respect, writes Ligue1.com’s Matthew Spiro.
A lot has been said this week about ‘Le Clash’, as L’Equipe called it, between Cavani and Neymar. Some reports claimed the two players had to be restrained from coming to blows in the dressing room after the 2-0 win over Lyon, others suggested only angry words were exchanged.
Cavani, who supposedly stands to gain a million euros if he finishes the season again as PSG’s top-scorer, insists the squabbling over who takes free-kicks and penalties is “nothing at all” and “the kind of thing that happens all the time”. He is right of course. I witnessed similar scenes in my children’s school playground just the other day
Elsewhere, in the wild world of social media, Diego Forlan insulted Dani Alves for allegedly taking sides with Neymar, while Mario Balotelli told Neymar he should just go and grab the ball and take the next penalty without even asking Cavani. Everybody seems to have a strong view. Everybody, that is, except Unai Emery, who is sitting on the fence. His assertion on Thursday that “Cavani and Neymar will both take penalties” has provided zero clarity and hints at a worrying lack of authority.
Emery’s refusal to take a stance is poor, and as far as I’m concerned shows a lack of support for Cavani. There is no fathomable reason for the Uruguayan to be relieved of spot-kick duties. He is the senior man, is established now as the team’s centre forward and leading marksman, and has an excellent conversion rate, particularly when it comes to taking penalties in the big matches.
Every football dressing room has a hierarchy. How that hierarchy is formed depends on many factors – but it’s not just about the cost of the players. Cavani is five years Neymar’s senior and has been at the Parc des Princes four years longer than the Brazilian. Furthermore, during his first three seasons – after joining for a then Ligue 1 record €64m – El Matador made major sacrifices, consenting to playing on the wing and allowing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to take charge of free-kicks and penalties. Not only did he agree to play out of position, he showed incredible commitment to the collective cause, constantly fighting feverishly to win the ball back and getting in to the box when he could.
In 2012-13, even David Beckham, who had an even bigger global status than Ibrahimovic, was swatted aside by the Swede in the Englishman’s final game as a professional when PSG won a free-kick within shooting range. Beckham was below Ibrahimovic in the hierarchy – and rightly so. And to, emphasise the point, ‘Ibra’ duly thrashed the ball into the back of the net.
In his first season as Paris’ centre forward, following Ibrahimovic’s departure, Cavani scored 49 goals. Just let that figure sink in a moment. He has earned the right to be the club’s main goal-getter, even with Neymar on board. If doubt is being cast on Cavani’s status, it suggests to me one of two things: either the Brazilian players have too much influence, or Emery’s hands are tied for political reasons. PSG did, after all, spend almost a quarter of a billion euros on Neymar and will not want to upset him. That might explain why Emery hasn’t stood up for his lethal no9, in public at least.
Defenders’ worst nightmare
For long periods last season, PSG struggled and were carried by Cavani’s goals. At 30, he is now at the peak of his considerable powers. Yes, he misses chances and his critics love to point that out, but let’s be totally honest about this: Edinson Cavani is a defender’s worst nightmare. His speed, power, athleticism and movement are an explosive cocktail that make him almost impossible to live with. The vast majority of chances he gets in a match come about because he has provoked them. He is also a fighter and his work ethic sets an example
During last Sunday’s tough match against Lyon, Cavani remained in the heart of the battle. With the scores at 0-0, Lyon’s Tanguy Ndombele hit the crossbar with a stunning long-range strike. Just as it looked like Memphis Depay might score from the follow up, Cavani accelerated back even quicker than Depay and the PSG defenders to head the ball behind. That moment was arguably more important than the penalty he missed after Neymar’s untimely and unhelpful intervention.
It goes without saying Neymar is a wonderful player. And we know he joined PSG because he wanted to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and be ‘the main man’. He is the main man in Paris, and he can continue to be that without taking the penalties and free-kicks away from Cavani. As a forward, to win the Ballon d’Or you have to score a lot of goals. But you also have to show class and remember that you are playing a team sport. Neymar has made a fantastic start to life in Ligue 1. But he shouldn’t lose sight of that last point.