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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.

Watch Live: Newcastle-Palace, Stoke-Sunderland; all 10am ET games

during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Swansea City at St James' Park on April 16, 2016 in Newcastle, England.
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Five Premier League games are coming your way at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday, with plenty of tasty matches on the slate which have huge implications in the battle against relegation.

[ LIVE: Stream PL via Live Extra 

Click on the link above, or the individual links below, to stream every single game live online via Live Extra. Plus, if it’s lineups, stats and a box score you are after, click on the link below.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

So, here is your one-stop streaming shop for every PL game kicking off at 10 a.m. ET.


Saturday, 10 a.m. ET kick offs

Newcastle United vs. Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, USA Network) –  [STREAM]

Former Newcastle boss Alan Pardew is back at St James’ Park. Will he be the villain? Rafael Benitez’s men have gone three unbeaten but must win this if they want to stay up.

Stoke City vs. Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Sunderland are outside of the bottom three and have their destiny in their own hands. Stoke has conceded four goals in each of their last three games amid a severe loss form.

Watford vs. Aston Villa – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) –  [STREAM]

Two teams out of form clash at Vicarage Road. Villa are already relegated and trying to avoid a club record 11th-straight defeat. The future of Watford’s Quique Sanchez Flores seems under threat.

Everton vs. Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Home fans are on Roberto Martinez’s back, big time. The Everton manager could go this summer and badly needs a big home win. The Cherries have lost four of their last five but should be safe.

West Brom vs. West Ham – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

The Baggies put a huge dent in Tottenham’s title hopes earlier this week, can they end West Ham’s top four hopes? Slaven Bilic‘s side have drawn four of their last five games.

Wenger ahead of Arsenal protests: “Banks demanded I signed for five years”

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Arsene Wenger has a message for Arsenal fans ahead of widespread protests planned from the home fans at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday as they face Norwich City (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via Live Extra).

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After 20 years in charge Wenger, 66, wants to remind Gunners fans of his commitment to their future as it is claimed he turned down Manchester City, Real Madrid and Barcelona in order to safeguard the future of Arsenal.

He believes the current criticism of him and his team is unjust, despite Arsenal not winning a Premier League title in 12 years and seeing their title dreams turn into a top four scramble in the closing months of this season with Tottenham and Leicester City above them.

In regards to Arsenal’s move to the Emirates Stadium and the complicated financial deal to get it over the line, Wenger had the following to say to the media (courtesy of the Guardian) ahead of what promises to be a difficult day for him.

“When we built the stadium the banks demanded I signed for five years,” Wenger said. “I did it. Do you want me to tell you how many clubs I turned down during that period? I have shown I am committed.

“The banks wanted the technical consistency to guarantee we had a chance to pay back [the loan],” Wenger added. “I did commit and I stayed, under very difficult circumstances. So for me to find [his critics] are reproaching me for not winning the championship during that period I think is a bit overboard. I accept criticism but I think that it is a bit too far.

“When we built the stadium, we knew we’d have five to seven difficult financial years where we had to pay the money back: we had to be three years in the Champions League out of five and have an average of 54,000 people [to meet costs], and we didn’t know we would be capable of that. We had to sell our best players every year to survive but we didn’t do three years out of five in the Champions League. We did five out of five. Now the club is in a stronger position and we can compete again with our main opponents.”

Arsenal fans, do you agree with Wenger on this?

Many aren’t disputing the fact that Wenger has his hands tied as the likes of Robin Van Persie, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas moved on to help finance the move to the Emirates, but they want success. They’ve had over a decade of hearing Wenger talk about how finances have dictated that the team can’t compete for trophies. They showed their disdain last week by staying away in their thousands from the 2-0 win over West Brom. 

[ MORE: Empty seats galore at the Emirates mean big problems

The protests on Saturday will be against Wenger, but only because he’s a focal point of the club. The main criticism will go against Arsenal’s board and majority shareholder Stan Kroenke for failing to invest heavily in the squad and make any managerial change which is needed.

Arsenal seem highly likely to finish in the top four for the 19th-straight season and qualify for the UEFA Champions League. That achievement under Wenger should not be understated, especially as we see giants like Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool struggling to finish in the top four in recent seasons.

The biggest issue is, even if Wenger was to move on this summer, who is a a better option than him right now? Maybe that’s the biggest point of contention for Arsenal fans. They are stick between a rock and a hard place.

MLS Snapshot: New York Red Bulls 4-0 FC Dallas (video)

HARRISON, NJ - NOVEMBER 29:  Felipe Martins #8 of New York Red Bulls drives around Federico Higuain #10 of Columbus Crew during their match at Red Bull Arena on November 29, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): Is it too early to say the Red Bulls have their mojo back? While FC Dallas will be leaving Harrison dazed and confused, the Red Bulls found success offensively for the second consecutive match, while also shutting out a potent attack. Head coach Jesse Marsch recently said that the Red Bulls’ win over Orlando City could spark a positive chain reaction moving forward, and it appears he was right. The Red Bulls looked dangerous every time they came down the Dallas end, finding the back of the net four times. Dallas still holds the top spot in the Western Conference, while New York makes a jump in the East, now sitting on nine points this season.

[ MORE: Previewing Week 9 around MLS ]

Three moments that mattered

37′ — Clever Red Bulls free kick finished by Sam — After two players ran over the ball, Sacha Kljestan’s chip to the far post was perfectly placed toward the run of Sal Zizzo. The right back nodded it into the center, where Lloyd Sam smashed the close-range chance home for the Red Bulls opener.

52′ — Kljestan doubles lead in style — Sam continued his impressive night for the Red Bulls after a long-range effort struck the bar from 40 yards out. Sacha Kljestan’s hustle put him in the right place at the right time and slid in to head the ball into the open net. FC Dallas keeper Jesse Gonzalez made his best effort but the initial shot’s bounce threw him off.

71′ — Grella heads home third — Sam was arguably the most dangerous man on the pitch Friday night, and he was directly involved in New York’s third goal. The 31-year-old found himself down the right wing, before laying the ball off to Felipe. The Brazilian crossed the ball into a striding Grella, who headed the ball home, giving Gonzalez no chance.

82′ — Felipe concludes the rout  — The Brazilian got in on the action for the fourth time on the night. The central midfielder received the ball at the top of the box from rookie Alex Muyl, before ripping a effort to the top corner. Gonzalez managed to get a hand to it, but Felipe’s shot was too strong to keep out.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Lloyd Sam

Goalscorers: Lloyd Sam (37′), Sacha Kljestan (52′), Mike Grella (71′), Felipe (82′)

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Crotone promoted to Serie A for 1st time in its history

CROTONE, ITALY - APRIL 23: Team of Crotone celebrate after the Serie B match between FC Crotone and Como Calcio  at Stadio Comunale Ezio Scida on April 23, 2016 in Crotone, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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MODENA, Italy (AP) Crotone secured promotion to Italy’s top flight for the first time in its history Friday, drawing 1-1 at Modena in Serie B to spark scenes of celebration in the Calabrian city.

[ MORE: Preliminary Brazilian Copa America roster features Kaka, Coutinho ]

There are three rounds remaining but a point was enough to guarantee Ivan Juric’s team will finish in the top two in the second division and earn automatic promotion to Serie A.

Cagliari is second, seven points behind Crotone, with Trapani eight points further back.

Davide Luppi gave Modena the lead in the 17th minute but former Juventus and Italy forward Raffaele Palladino leveled with a penalty on the stroke of halftime.

Around 1,200 fans had travelled to Modena, while thousands of people are celebrating in the streets of Crotone, where there were two giant screens set up for fans to watch the match.

It is Juric’s first season in charge of Crotone. The former Croatia midfielder also spent five years as a player for Crotone, before moving to Genoa in 2006.

The Stadio Ezio Scida, where Crotone plays its home matches, holds less than 10,000 people.

Fellow minnows Carpi and Frosinone were promoted to Serie A for the first time in their history last season.

Carpi is currently three points above the drop zone, while Frosinone is five points from safety.