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Match 63
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Football Whispers

Guingamp perfectly epitomise Neymar's Ligue 1 challenge

GUINGAMP, France -- "While Neymar is making his debut in front of 18,250 people on Sunday, Barcelona will be playing in front of 99,354 against Real Madrid at Camp Nou."

There has been a lot of that this week. Like it means anything.

When Barca travel to tiny Eibar's 7,083-capacity Ipurua Municipal Stadium next February, Neymar and his new Paris Saint-Germain side will host recently promoted Strasbourg at Parc des Princes in front of what will probably be close to a 47,929-strong crowd. So?

Alaves, Getafe, Girona and Leganes also play at venues smaller than the Stade de Roudourou, where Neymar will make his PSG debut on Sunday.

Like any major European league, there are big fixtures and smaller ones, and it is simply the luck of the draw when the big teams visit the little ones and vice versa.

"Ligue 1 is full of farmers."

There have been many of those sorts of comments too since Neymar showed the audacity to leave Barca for PSG in a world-record €222 million deal.


There are a number of other top sides in Le Championnat and not just the obvious ones such as Monaco, Nice, Lyon and Marseille.

The likes of Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne are also capable of competing against the best in France's top flight, so the idea that Neymar has moved to a league completely lacking in quality is a complete nonstarter.

It is ironic, though, that the Brazilian superstar should make his debut this weekend against a team that is reveling in its agricultural image and in many ways fits the lazy, stereotypical image those unfamiliar with Ligue 1 have of the competition.

Despite the fact that they have continually defied the odds to be competing in their fifth consecutive season in Le Championnat, have won the Coupe de France twice -- once while in Ligue 2 -- and represent a commune with a population of just more than 7,000, modest En Avant de Guingamp, half-jokingly, actually pride themselves on their image as a farmers club.

#NeymarAuVillage ("Neymar to the village") has been trending on Twitter this week ahead of PSG and Neymar's visit to the department of Cotes-d'Armor -- yes, the Internet and Twitter exist in such a sleepy place -- and the club have also been joking about their country bumpkin image, not to mention their love of tractors and menial work.

On paper, Unai Emery's men should walk all over Antoine Kombouare's hosts. However, the reality is that things are never that straightforward for Les Parisiens or any other Ligue 1 sides when they travel to Brittany to face Les Guingampais.

The Spanish tactician knows this well. He watched his team lose 2-1 there last December, and only a 5-0 thrashing of Lorient at Parc des Princes to end 2016 was enough to prevent the Basque from being sacked for the humiliation of going down to Guingamp.

That was not the first time the Bretons had humiliated their illustrious capital city visitors, either. Back in December 2014, and with the mighty Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the starting XI, then-coach Jocelyn Gourvennec engineered another memorable result just days after PSG had been beaten 3-1 by Barcelona at Camp Nou in the UEFA Champions League group stages.

Guingamp is a tough away day in Ligue 1, and though everybody enjoys the spectacle created by the passionate supporters at their intimate venue, nobody relishes playing in that sort of intimidating environment on a tight pitch that is often far from in pristine condition.

Neymar will make his highly anticipated PSG and Ligue 1 debut Sunday against Guingamp.

On top of all of this, the hosts have already sold enough tickets for the encounter to set a record attendance at the Roudourou.

It is as close to an English Premier League road match against the likes of Bournemouth, Burnley or Swansea as you will get in Le Championnat, and it is likely to show Neymar the sort of football and atmosphere that he will have rarely experienced in Spain and might have thought did not exist in France.

As Emery put it in his prematch news conference at Camp des Loges on Friday, Guingamp will be "up for it."

"We respect all of our opponents a lot," the 45-year-old told journalists. "Guingamp enjoyed a great season last time campaign, they have won their first match this term, and their stadium will be packed for our visit.

"All of our opponents are highly motivated each time they play us -- they want to push us around and cause an upset. We must prepare thoroughly for this match. We know that it will be difficult -- we lost there last season -- but we need to get a result, so we will go for the win.

"The players all know that it will be complicated and that there will be an intimidating atmosphere. Everyone has warned the new recruits that this sort of game will not be easy.

"I think that Guingamp absolutely want to see Neymar play. It would be great for everyone, notably their fans at the ground."

It promises to be quite the debut for Neymar. The Brazil international will get little time on the ball and will almost certainly be on the receiving end of some hefty challenges from some of the French top flight's most physical players.

On top of that, Kombouare -- a PSG legend and former coach -- has a good record against the club and will have his troops motivated to get in the visitors' faces.

Guingamp's former PSG youth academy graduate, Jordan Ikoko, summed up the occasion of Neymar's debut quite well when speaking with L'Equipe earlier in the week.

"This is the first time in my career that I will come up against a genuinely world-class player," he said, despite having faced the likes of former teammates Edinson Cavani and Marco Verratti, as well as Angel Di Maria. "Like everybody at Guingamp, I will be disappointed if he is not there.

"I will not concoct an anti-Neymar plan. It does not exist! The whole team must be at its best," Ikoko said. "There is Neymar, but there are also 10 other players. I am a defender. I will not drop my head if he nutmegs me. It is Neymar. You have to expect that from him."

Guingamp know to expect the unexpected from Neymar, but can the same be said of the 25-year-old toward his maiden Ligue 1 opponents?

The man from Mogi das Cruzes is about to get his first taste of the non-Champions League part of the challenge that he has taken on by moving to PSG from Barca, and it promises to be fascinating for all involved.

Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.


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