Brazil star Neymar looks back to his best ahead of World Cup

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PARIS: Was that really Neymar?

You had to blink and look again but, yes, it was him, sprinting down the left touchline deep into stoppage time desperately trying to keep the ball in play last weekend during the 1-1 home draw with Monaco at Parc des Princes.

Neymar, the self-indulgent prince of PSG for so many years, was working as hard as anyone on the field. Yes, you read that last part correctly.

In what is great news for Brazil ahead of the World Cup in Qatar, a slim, athletic Neymar looks fitter and sharper than he has for several years after being dogged by fitness worries, questions over his lifestyle choices, and dragged down by persistent foot injuries.

Since joining PSG for a world record €222 million (then $263 million) in 2017, Neymar has appeared in only 92 league games from a possible 190 — a remarkably low 48 percent.

Then there was his attitude, his irritating attempts at humiliating opponents or berating teammates for not giving him the ball — only to fall short when PSG really needed him deep in the Champions League.

That seems to have changed, too.

There have been no histrionics, no rolling around on the ground like at the 2018 World Cup and every season since with PSG, except for this one.

Neymar’s attitude has changed to the extent that he even acted as a peacemaker late on against Monaco when several players were involved in a flare up.

Oh, and not to mention his hatful of goals.

Neymar’s penalty against Monaco took him to eight goals in five games, including the preseason French Champions Trophy. He’s added six assists for good measure, meaning he’s been involved in nearly three goals per game.

Little wonder, then, that sports daily L’Equipe has him top of the charts with an average score of 8/10 in the weekly player ratings — one point more than record seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi.

“He’s the one who brings the balance up front,” PSG coach Christophe Galtier said of Neymar.

With Galtier jolting PSG’s players out of their comfort zone, and Neymar at 30, he seems close to his best. That bodes well for Brazil at the World Cup, which he will enter as one of the most scrutinized players. In Qatar, Neymar could even break Pele’s national record of 77 goals — he has 74 for Brazil.

Neymar is linking up with Messi like they did during their heyday at Barcelona, where they formed one of the best strike partnerships in recent history known as the MSN — with Luis Suarez the other star.

Now it’s the MNM — Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe — causing French defenses nightmares. In four league games, PSG have netted 18 goals, with Messi and Mbappe sharing seven between them.

It helps that Galtier is playing Neymar higher up the pitch, in a zone of 30-40 meters. This means Neymar is dropping back far less to get the ball and launch attacks on his own, which was not working in recent seasons as injuries and lack of fitness worked against him.

It also meant he was fresh enough to chase that lost ball late on Sunday.

Given France’s enviable attacking options, Newcastle forward Allan Saint-Maximin knows he will have to do something incredible to earn a first call-up to his national team for the World Cup.

He is giving it a good go, though.

A week ago, Saint-Maximin dismantled the best defense in the English Premier League with a man-of-the-match display against Manchester City in a 3-3 draw, and followed it with a cheeky tweet to France coach Didier Deschamps.

“I hope Didier Deschamps had his Canal+ codes,” Saint-Maximin wrote, referring to the French TV channel that broadcasts EPL games.

On Sunday, Saint-Maximin — one of English soccer’s most entertaining players — starred again by guiding home a brilliant volley from the edge of the area to salvage Newcastle a 1-1 draw at Wolverhampton.

He doesn’t need Twitter to send a message to Deschamps. His performances on the field are doing that.

The 25-year-old Saint Maximin has played in France’s youth teams, from the under-16s to the under 21s, but never the senior team.

Charles De Ketelaere might be just what Belgium needs to transform from top-ranked contender to champion at the World Cup.

The 21-year-old playmaker has made quite an impact in only three matches with Italian champion AC Milan, already drawing comparisons to former Rossoneri standout Kaka.

The baby-faced, blond-haired De Ketelaere — or “CDK” as he’s being referred to — lit up the San Siro with his crosses and an assist for Milan’s first goal in a 2-0 win over Bologna on Saturday in his first start since joining from Club Brugge in a 32 million euro ($32.5 million) transfer.

Paolo Maldini, the great Milan captain and now sporting director, was focused on De Ketelaere from the start of the transfer window.

“Charles has a lot of talent,” Milan coach Stefano Pioli said. “He’s already shown some great things, he’s intelligent and will definitely improve.”

While De Ketelaere has scored only once in eight appearances for Belgium, he joins an offensive team that already features one of the world’s top midfielders in Kevin De Bruyne and expert finisher Romelu Lukaku.

No. 2 to Brazil, Belgium havebeen at or near the top of the FIFA rankings for years but its best recent result was third place at the 2018 World Cup.

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