One-man Plan B: Neymar could fill Barcelona’s biggest need

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Happily, I was wrong about this future — speculation we were in for another summer of interminable Neymar gossip. Instead, the various entities with ownership stakes in Brazil’s biggest star decided to sell. Instead of trying to improve their negotiating stance by pursing an extension to Neymar’s Santos deal (which expired next year), the club and other investors paved the player’s route to Barcelona, even though the 21-year-old was willing to stay.

It made for an emotional scene today as Santos opened their Campeonato campaign against Flamengo at the country’s new national stadium in Brasilia. Before what was expected to be his final Santos appearance, Neymar was clearly emotional, a state the perhaps played into the team’s performance. The match produced the first 0-0 of the Brazilian weekend, Neymar allowed to see out the full 90 at a venue named after another Brazilian legend: the right-winger Garrincha.

It’s on the opposite flank where Neymar may make his mark for Barcelona, a team that desperately needs a second threat to offset their increased dependence on Lionel Messi. It’s not just that Barça’s attack has become increasingly centered on their Argentine dynamo, a process with extremes that became evident when Messi picked up an injury late in the Catalans’ Champions League campaign. Tito Vilanova team has lost all their Plan Bs. Whereas previous editions in this Barcelona run had Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, and a year of Zlatan Ibrahimovic — players who were scoring goals independent of Messi’s play — now David Villa, Alexis Sanchez, and Pedro Rodríguez are entirely dependent on Messi. Either through what Messi creates or the attention defense pay to him, Barcelona’s other goal scoring is a function of Plan A.

Of course, we’re speaking in relative terms. Barcelona has scored 111 goals in 37 La Liga games, so their attack isn’t exactly weak. By any reasonable, broad measure, it’s still prolific, but in big games, they’ve become easier to predict, their lack of variety allowing teams like Milan and Paris Saint-Germain to compete. Demurring into a deep, compact shape that declined to engage until the edge of Barcelona’s attacking third, Milan defeated Barça at home in Champions League’s Round of 16. PSG arguably outplayed Barcelona in the quarterfinals, while Bayern Munich were eventually able to counter the Catalans into embarrassment. Along the way it became apparent: Teams with the talent to compete at Europe’s highest level were having little trouble competing with Barcelona.

Barça needs a solution, particularly with defenses playing so deep, so tight that the influences of Xavi Hernández and Andres Iniesta are also being offset. In lieu of another experiment with a target striker, an exercise that’s unlikely in the wake of Ibrahimovic, Barcelona needs a player who can stretch defenses – somebody who can offer more of a threat than the mere width of Daniel Alves and Jordi Alba. Before suffering a broken leg in Yokohama in December 2011, Villa could have been that threat his ability to cut in from wide left and create goals a proven catalyst for the Spanish national team. Villa, however, has yet to regain his full place in the team, having scored only 15 all-competition goals this season.

Neymar has the potential to fill this void. If he lives up to his promise, the Brazilian will stretch opposing defenses, his skill on the ball giving Barça the type of one-on-one threat that can’t trusted to most right backs. Should teams decline to go out and play him, Neymar has the ability to pick his spots coming in or threaten with right-footed crosses from wide.

It’s a threat the team hasn’t had since Henry, whose second year in Barcelona produced 29 goals and 12 assists as a Plan B in Pep Guardiola’s attack. As he faded, Ibrahimovic left, and Messi gravitated toward a central role, Barcelona stopped utilizing this type of wide threat, their persistent winning ways perhaps obscuring the inevitable problem.

It may be a bit much to expect Neymar to replicate the numbers Henry produced in 2008-09, though he certainly has the talent. Still, there’s reason to doubt he can be so prolific, at least in the short-term. The jump to Europe presents unique challenges for every player, especially one leaving his country for the first time. Because of his early rise to stardom, Neymar’s been able to live a self-defining existence in Brazil, something that will change once he lands in Catalunya. Near-30-goal output is too much to ask for the coming season, which is not to say Neymar needs produce that much to be an immediate success.

On the field (or, on the chalkboard), Neymar seems a perfect fit – a player that allows Barcelona to regress to a most-balanced approach. Were they to persist as a vehicle Messi’s used to take on the world, Barcelona would face the same obstacles next season, and be equally troubled traversing them.

With the addition of a true Plan B (and what a Plan B, at that), Barcelona may be able to jumpstart its dynasty. Whether Neymar produces 30 goals or 15, as long as he scares opponents into accounting for him, he will have a huge impact on Barcelona’s success.

They still need to improve their defense, determine how to move forward with their coaching position, and improve their depth. But with the addition of a second legitimate threat, Barcelona may have solved their biggest problem – big time opposition having figured them out.

Star-Spangled Spurs: Tottenham eager for US return

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With Tottenham Hotspur heading to the U.S. for their preseason tour this summer, Spurs’ club legend Ledley King embarked on a whistle-stop trip of their three host cities.

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King, 36, spent time in New York City, Orlando and Nashville last week as Tottenham’s fans Stateside gear up to see Spurs’ first full U.S. tour since 2014.

Tottenham did play the MLS All-Stars in 2015 but that was a brief one-game trip during preseason. Now, they’ve gone all-in as Mauricio Pochettino‘s men will play Paris Saint-Germain in Orlando on July 22, AS Roma at Red Bull Arena on July 25 and finish the tour in Nashville on July 29 where they take on Manchester City in an all-Premier League clash.

Pro Soccer Talk caught up with King last week and the club ambassador revealed that everyone connected with Tottenham is excited to be heading back to the USA.

“It is something everyone enjoys,” King explained. “We have a huge fanbase in the States and on previous trips I have been able to spend some time with the supporters groups out here and it’s forever growing. It’s really important we put on a show for them and try and give back to them.”

[ MORE: PL giants announce preseason tours

King — Spurs’ former captain who was forced to retire early at the age of 31 after chronic knee problems — met with Tottenham supporters groups in NYC, Orlando and Nashville during his trips, as well as taking in some iconic sights from all three cities.

One thing which stood out to the towering former central defender was the dedication Spurs fans in the States have for their team.

“It’s amazing,” King said. “A lot of the supporters make trips over to White Hart Lane when they can and they are obviously very clued up on everything that’s happening surrounding the club, all the recent moves, they are all up to date. Whenever I come away, no matter how far away from home, I bump into Spurs fans everywhere which is great.”

Pochettino’s players will be based on the east coast of the U.S. for the trip this summer but they will soak up three very different cities. From the hustle and bustle of NYC to the theme parks and heat of Orlando and laid-back sights in Nashville, Tottenham’s players will get a real taste of America this summer.

“Every city is quite different, the weather especially!” King laughed as he’d traveled from a frigid NYC to steamy Orlando in 24 hours. “The Spurs fans are all there and they greeted us in every city we went to which was great. They will get fully behind the team when the lads come out this summer. I would imagine most of the boys have been to New York before but I don’t think many have been to Nashville. It is great that they can experience what a nice place it is and I’m sure the team will be looking forward to it.”

On King’s quick trip the former England international was able to catch up with Man vs. Food star, and huge Spurs fan, Adam Richman in NYC, plus pose for a few classic photos. With U.S. national team stars Kasey Keller, Clint Dempsey, DeAndre Yedlin and current center back prospect Cameron Carter-Vickers all calling White Hart Lane home over the years, Spurs’ links with the U.S. are strong.

Like many of Spurs’ current first team players, King is also a huge fan of U.S. sports. Harry Kane is a massive New England Patriots fan, while the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Eric Dier and Dele Alli are avid followers of many American sports.

King is no different and, somewhat unsurprisingly, he is a big fan of a certain NBA team from San Antonio…

“I’m big into basketball and the NBA at the moment. I’ve always followed players. I was a big Kobe Bryant fan years ago but there are players I like now, LeBron James, Steph Curry. I like the San Antonio Spurs, obviously…” King laughed. “I like their organization and the way they are run. They’ve had an infrastructure in place and keep performing at a high level. I’m a big basketball fan and I’m trying to get into the NFL more. I’ve met quite a few players the last few years on their trips to London and our training ground and I’m really looking forward to all of the NFL teams coming over to London and Tottenham once our new stadium is ready.”

 

With Spurs’ new 61,000 capacity stadium at White Hart Lane scheduled to be ready for the 2018-19 Premier League season, they’ve signed a 10-year deal with the NFL to host at least two games per season in London. That will keep fans of both types of football on either sides of the pond very happy.

As for fans in the U.S., King applauded their dedication and revealed the different reaction PL players receive when they come Stateside.

“I think what makes it special is their passion and love of the game,” King said. “In England, the fans are spoiled with being able to come to games and seeing players. When players and the likes of myself are able to come over to this side of the pond and meet fans in the flesh, the fans in the U.S. seem genuinely shocked that we are actually there. There is always a big surprise and we get a good reaction when we are in their company or in their country. That’s a nice treat.”

With so many teams coming to the U.S. from all over Europe each summer to train, play against each other in preseason tournaments and try to capture the hearts and imaginations of the American public, what will Spurs, a team who has battled for the PL title the past two seasons, aim to gain from their time Stateside?

“We have an exciting team and an exciting project with a young group of players and I think the U.S. fans like the underdog, ” King said. “We are not a team who goes out and spends huge sums of money. We try to do things the right way and play the game the right way. I think the fans appreciate that and we would like to grow our fanbase. The other thing in coming out here is that we get the weather and the opposition. The opposition we will be competing against is at a very, very high level, and that will enable our players to get the right preparation for the new season. On all levels it works really well.”

Another thing which has gone really well in recent years is the popularity of the Premier League in the U.S.

There’s no shying away from the fact that more and more fans of the PL are popping up across the country and preseason games involving Premier League clubs are selling out. Has King noticed a difference in how soccer is now perceived compared to previous trips across the pond?

“Just coming here on this trip, you can see the interest in the Premier League is growing,” King said. “I’ve never been to Nashville before but going there surprised me. When we did the press conference so many people wanted to come down and everyone was passionate about the game. Overall, people really know their stuff about the Premier League and in MLS with great players like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard coming over recently and obviously Robbie Keane doing so well in LA, all of these little things add up to people looking at the Premier League. It is the most exciting league in the world. Americans like their fast-paced action and that’s what you get with the Premier League.”

Fans Stateside this summer will be getting to see the likes of Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United up close and personal.

How will USMNT line up vs. Panama?

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Following on from their stunning 6-0 win against Honduras on Friday to get their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign back on track, Bruce Arena and the U.S. national team face Panama in Panama City on Tuesday.

This will be a totally different test for the USMNT.

[ MORE: Three keys for USA v Panama ] 

With veterans Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey all available for selection, Arena will call on them to help guide the likes of Christian Pulisic through what will be a hostile environment in Panama.

The U.S. currently sits in fourth place in the Hexagonal standings with three points (that means they occupy the play-off spot) one place and one point below Panama while Mexico is top on seven points and Costa Rica sit in second place on six points. Right now, Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama will qualify automatically for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

A win for Arena’s men would be very handy indeed, especially with a trip to Mexico coming up this summer, but a point on the road in humid conditions in Central America is nothing to scoff at either.

Arena is without both John Brooks and Sebastian Lletget through injury, as the USMNT head coach hinted that he could make up to four or five changes from the team which beat Honduras.

Below is a look at a few options for how the U.S. can line up in Panama on Tuesday.


JPW’s pick

—– Howard —–

— Zusi — Cameron — Ream — Villafana —

—- Bradley —- Jones —-

— Bedoya — Dempsey — Pulisic —

—– Altidore —–

Most likely XI

—– Howard —–

— Cameron — Gonzalez — Ream — Villafana —

—- Bedoya —- Bradley —- Jones —-

—- Dempsey —- Altidore —- Pulisic —

 

Defensive XI

—– Howard —–

— Zusi — Gonzalez — Ream — Villafana —

—- Bradley —- Cameron —-

— Bedoya —- Dempsey —- Pulisic —

—– Altidore —–

Thoughts

My pick sees four changes to the starting lineup from last Friday’s big win. Tim Ream would come in for the injured Brooks at center back, while Graham Zusi would start at right back and Geoff Cameron slots in at center back to replace Omar Gonzalez who looked shaky against Honduras. In midfield having a more defensive option in Jermaine Jones could be the smart play but that would mean losing Darlington Nagbe who did well against Honduras while Jones was suspended. Alejandro Bedoya would be a straight-swap for the injured Lletget as he would line up alongside Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic in support of Altidore.

The more defensive option would see Cameron partner Bradley in central midfield and Gonzalez keep his place at center back, while the more likely option for Arena is just three changes with Ream in for Brooks, Bedoya in for Lletget and Jones in for Nagbe. If it ain’t broken, there’s no need to fix it and Arena will not want to upset the rhythm of his side who looked so balanced and clinical against Honduras. Having Jones back from suspension will help navigate this tricky road trip where a point is a good result and that’s a totally different scenario to the must-win mentality adopted for last Friday’s game.

How important is Eden Hazard to Chelsea?

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Can Chelsea afford to lose Eden Hazard?

Hazard, 26, continues to be linked with a move to Real Madrid this summer for a potential world-record fee of over $125 million.

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This season the Belgian winger has been unplayable at times, particularly in recent months, and he is on the verge of leading Chelsea to a second Premier League title in the last three seasons.

Yet, with rumors of Hazard leaving Stamford Bridge persisting it is worth contemplating just how important he is to Antonio Conte‘s side despite the Italian claiming his star winger is “priceless” in a bid to wave off interest.

From a numbers perspective Hazard’s importance is clear. He has scored 11 PL goals and has four assists, with Diego Costa the only other Chelsea player to be involved in more goals with the Spanish international scoring 17 times and adding five assists. Beyond this season, Hazard has scored and assisted on more goals than any other current Chelsea player since he arrived in 2012-13.

There’s no doubting Hazard’s influence runs deeper than goals and assists.

When he picks up the ball defenders backtrack and even when they get close they have no idea which way Hazard will turn. The only way to try and stop him, as we’ve seen recently in their FA Cup quarterfinal win against Manchester United, is by hacking him down at every opportunity. With so much focus on stopping Hazard, the likes of Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian have been able to flourish and Conte reshaped his Chelsea side to a 3-4-3 with wing backs to get the best out of Hazard.

Hazard is back to his best with confidence flowing through his game just like it did in the 2014-15 campaign as he led Chelsea to the PL title and was crowned as the PFA Player of the Year.

However, there is a lingering sense that if Real Madrid did offer a huge sum of money this summer then perhaps Chelsea would accept the deal. Last season Hazard was way off the pace as Jose Mourinho’s time at Chelsea unraveled quickly and he was lambasted by fans as one of the star players who turned against the manager.

There’s no doubting Hazard is up there with N'Golo Kante and Costa as Chelsea’s top players this season but arguably he would be the most replaceable star. Without Costa’s goals and presence up top, Chelsea would be struggling. Without Kante’s incredible rate of interceptions and tackles in midfield, they’d be less effective in launching devastating counters.

When Hazard was missing through injury in Chelsea’s 2-1 win at Stoke in their last PL outing, Willian came into the team and scored a free kick and alongside Pedro they provided plenty of chances for Costa and others to score. Hazard wasn’t missed but there’s no doubting Chelsea is a better team when he’s in it.

On paper Hazard is entering the prime years of his career and perhaps the pull of Real Madrid could be too great if the Spanish giants do indeed intend to chase him hard in the summer. Of course, Real already have Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema up top but if the Zinedine Zidane’s side bought Hazard then he’d obviously start.

The only thing he has left to achieve with Chelsea is win the UEFA Champions League. Apart from that, he’s proven himself as one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League time and again.

It will be intriguing to see what happens with Hazard this summer.

Injuries, suspensions still an issue for busy Man United

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Manchester United have been struggling with suspensions and injuries and the international break hasn’t provided any respite.

[ MORE: United announce US tour dates ]

Both Zlatan Ibrahmovic and Ander Herrera are suspended for Saturday’s clash with West Bromwich Albion (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com) at Old Trafford, plus Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Maroune Fellaini are all doubtful.

Jones injured his toe while on international duty as his United teammate Smalling tackled him in training, while Smalling has been spotted in a knee brace after picking up a knock in England’s win against Lithuania on Sunday. Fellaini also suffered a toe injury in Belgium’s draw with Greece on Saturday and has been released from international duty.

Rooney hasn’t played since the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth on Mar. 4 after suffering a training ground injury with Jones and Pogba limped off with a hamstring injury in United’s UEFA Europa League win against Rostov on Mar. 16.

Oh, Jose. When it rains it pours…

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All of this injury news has been made more concerning given United’s busy month coming up as Mourinho’s men have nine games in April as they push hard to finish in the top four in the PL and reach the UEFA Champions League.

After the game against West Brom they face Everton at home and Sunderland away in a seven day stretch before heading to Anderlecht on Apr. 13 for the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal. Sandwiched in-between their two games with Anderlecht they host Premier League leaders Chelsea and then finish off April with trips to Burnley and Manchester City before hosting Swansea City.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Mourinho will be hoping the vast majority of these players will be available for the busy stretch ahead as his large squad cope with a season-long struggle of juggling PL, domestic cup and European action.

Defensively he still has Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly to slot in but he could be forced to draft in youngster Timothy Fosu-Mensah into midfield with so many games coming up in a short space of time.

United will be stretched to the limit as they aim to finish the season strong.