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Saint-Etienne’s proud defensive record faces a Neymar test

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PARIS (AP) Saint-Etienne is the only team in the French league not to concede a goal so far ahead of Sunday’s trip to play Paris Saint-Germain.

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Whether that remains the case after defending against Neymar remains to be seen.

Neymar has made a strong start to his PSG career since joining from Barcelona. It was somewhat expected considering he cost a world record 222 million ($262 million), but the speedy way he has adapted and the seamless high quality of his play have perhaps even exceeded expectation.

“I don’t know if there’s a way of stopping him,” said Toulouse striker Andy Delort, who witnessed Neymar’s destructive brilliance first-hand when PSG routed Toulouse 6-2 last weekend.

Somewhat modestly, Neymar puts his instant success down to the players around him helping him to settle in smoothly.

“The team has a Brazilian style of play and that makes it easier for me,” Neymar said. “The presence of Daniel Alves, of Marquinhos, of the South Americans is very important. We can laugh and joke together.”

Opponents are not finding it funny playing against him.

Neymar has been involved in eight of PSG’s nine goals in the two games he’s played, scoring three of them. He touched the ball 118 times against Toulouse, scored twice and was directly involved in the four other goals.

“He’s phenomenal, an artist. He’s just like Ronaldinho was, you just never knew what to expect when he got the ball,” Delort said. “The only good thing is that we only have to play against him once more this season.”

The comparison with Brazilian ace Ronaldinho - who made the reverse journey, leaving PSG to join Barcelona in 2003 - is an apt one.

Like Ronaldinho, Neymar has an unpredictable edge to his game. Although not as explosive and direct as Ronaldinho - a former Golden Ball winner - Neymar’s electric pace and speed of thought make him a nightmare to defend against.

Neymar’s second goal against Toulouse was among the best solo goals the French league has seen in recent years. A blur of quick feet, astonishing balance and exotic dribbling moves, it left his spectators and teammates alike in awe.

“He scores goals you see in cartoons,” midfielder Marco Verratti said, while Edinson Cavani - scorer of a whopping 49 goals for PSG last season - added that “for us it seems crazy, but for him it’s just normal.”

Neymar’s starting position is on the left flank, but he rarely stays there. His eye for goal often takes him into more central positions, where he can use his skill and glue-like ball control to attack the heart of the defense at speed.

As the team’s center forward, Cavani also needs that central space to flourish. Therefore, signing Neymar came with an element of risk in that they might get in each other’s way - or that Neymar would eat up the space needed by Cavani.

Yet in two games so far, they have switched positions with relative ease, and even set up goals for each other.

There seems to be none of the confusion that sometimes appeared in recent years, when Cavani had an awkward time alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic - PSG’s all-time top scorer with 156 goals in just 180 games.

In fact, the early signs are encouraging that Neymar and Cavani - who is still in his prime at 30 - are highly compatible.

Potentially, PSG has a dream partnership in the making, and that’s unwelcome news for Saint-Etienne.