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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.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group B: Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Haiti

Brazil's Willian, left, and United States’ Alejandro Bedoya contend for the ball during the first half of an international friendly soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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Brazil

They’ve won five Copa America titles with the last in 2007, but in their previous two Copa campaigns Brazil hasn’t made it past the quarterfinal stage. Despite not having captain and talisman Neymar around they’ll be one of the favorites this summer.

Star player: Douglas Costa – The winger was in fine form for Bayern Munich this season and along with Willian he will be a real threat in support of Hulk.

They will sweep all before them because… They have a huge number of talented attacking midfielders who can rip teams apart on their own. Together it could get rather silly. Expect them to be in the final four.

Really, though, Dunga will be on the hot seat in July: The one thing that stands out about this team is the lack of goals. Only one player in the entire squad has double figures (Hulk, with 12) and anything less than winning a major title is always treated with despair by the Brazilian population. If they don’t win either Copa America Centenario or the gold medal at Rio 2016, Dunga will be under big pressure.


Ecuador

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - MARCH 28:  Miguel Layun of Mexico (L) fights for the ball with Antonio Valencia of Ecuador (R) during a friendly match between Mexico and Ecuador at Memorial Coliseum Stadium on March 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, United States. (Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Man, Ecuador is due a good Copa America performance. They haven’t made it out of the group stage since 1997 and have finished in fourth place twice.

Star player: Enner Valencia – After returning from injury in the final 13weeks of the season we saw just how important he is for Manchester United. That was from right back. Valencia will play in a more advanced role for Ecuador and provides bags of experience.

La Tricolor will go far because of forwards: Goals. Goals. Goals. Ecuador has a ton of talented attackers in its squad. Enner Valencia and Jefferson Montero will be dangerous and through the first five 2018 World Cup qualifying games they’ve scored 12 times and sit second in the table.

Likely heartbreak warning: With top scorer from World Cup qualifying, Felipe Caceido, out injured, Ecuador has been dealt a huge blow. They seem to always be the nearly men.


Peru

Paolo Guerrero, Peru

They’ve won the tournament twice in their history and last summer they were the surprise semifinalists who finished in third place. Anchored by a strong defense, they’ll be hoping to cause another upset.

Star player: Paolo Guerrero – He is their main man up top with 26 goals in 67 appearances. If Peru has a chance in the box, they want it to fall to him.

They will be the darlings of the tournament: If they get off to a flying start against Haiti in Seattle then we can expect big things. Confidence will be key ahead of the final game against Brazil.

Goals will be the big problem: They scored just twice in three games during the group stage last summer and somehow made it through. They will have to do more than that this time out and if they don’t beat Haiti, it is curtains for their knockout stage hopes.


Haiti

Gyasi Zardes, Frantz Bertin
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This will be their first-ever appearance in the Copa America and after their successful Gold Cup campaign in 2015, who knows what’s possible? They will fancy their chances of advancing despite all the odds stacked against them.

Star player: Johnny Placide – He shone for Haiti during the Gold Cup last summer and their goalkeeper will be another busy man. A beast.

Beware of the underdogs, they’ll get you: As we saw last summer, we shouldn’t underestimate Haiti. They only lost to the USA 1-0 and beat Honduras on their way to a quarterfinal exit to eventual runners up Jamaica. They will keep it tight and try to grind out wins.

Tight isn’t good enough: As they’ve found out in World Cup qualifying, you have to do more than hang in there. They haven’t scored a goal through four games of 2018 World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF Group B and sit bottom of the table. Placide will have to come up big this summer if they’re going to produce something special.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group B, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Brazil, Ecuador going through; Peru and Haiti going home

Marquee match: I’m going with Brazil vs. Ecuador on June 4 at the Rose Bowl. This two will go at it to try and take control of Group B. Should be a fun one. 

Top players to watch

1) Douglas Costa
2) Willian
3) Antonio Valencia
4) Paolo Guerrero
5) Johnny Placide

French security chief: Strikes won’t threaten sports events

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 28:Tens of thousands of the French workers protest as the Unions in France launch new strikes against the pension reform plan on October 28, 2010 in Marseille, France. This is the seventh day of protest for French workers angry at the Government's proposed pension reforms. Nicolas Sarkozy, however, has not wavered in his plans to increase the state pension age from 60 to 62 and last night the National Assembly passed the bill.  (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) France’s interior minister says violent labor protests and strikes causing gas shortages won’t jeopardize the upcoming European Championship or other sporting events.

[ MORE: 5 things for Mourinho at United ]

About 1,500 people have been detained in recent weeks and hundreds of police officers have been injured in breaking up protests and dislodging protesters from fuel depots.

The tensions have added to concern about security for Euro 2016, already facing what Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the “double threat” of violent Islamic extremism and hooliganism.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI?

Cazeneuve told reporters Wednesday that the government respects the right to strike and does not see the labor movement as a “threat.”

He said it won’t disrupt protection of the June 10-July 10 championship, involving an unprecedented 90,000 people ensuring security.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group A: USA, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay

USA v Colombia - International Friendly
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USA

This will be the USA’s fourth Copa America appearance and they’ve struggled in this competition in the past with their best finish coming in 1995 when they finished fourth. Can the hosts finish in the top four this time?

Star player: Bobby Wood – I would’ve gone for Clint Dempsey but I think Wood will carry this team after a stunning season in Germany. He’s so sharp right now and is clinical.

Why USA will flop and pile more pressure on Klinsmann: The U.S. head coach has already stated their target as reaching the semifinals. That’s attainable but they’re in a very tough group to get out of. It is hard to see them getting out of this group, which will then pile more pressure on JK.

[ MORE: Full Copa America 2016 coverage ]

But this is how they’ll really battle through and make the semifinals: However, how many times have we written this U.S. team off? Plenty. And they always seem to have a surprise in them. They got out of the Group of Death in Brazil two years ago and it is all about getting a positive result in the opener against Colombia. Win that and the team, fans and the nation will believe. As the host nation, that’s a powerful thing.


Colombia 

James Rodriguez, Colombia
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They burst onto the scene as a reborn team at the 2014 World Cup but they’ve struggled to regain that form since. Colombia has won the Copa America once in its history, back in 2001 when Victor Aristizabal  ran the show for the host nation.

Star player: James Rodriguez – Real Madrid attacker will lead Colombia and thrives on being the main man. That’s what he will be this summer. Watch him go.

How Colombia can regain 2014 World Cup form: They’ve lost a spark in the last 12-18 months since the World Cup but there’s no doubt that Jose Pekerman’s men have the talent to succeed. The shackles will be off this summer and their fans travel well. Los Cafeteros will play in front of a sea of yellow wherever they go.

More than likely they’ll bow out in quarterfinals: Despite all of their attacking prowess, they’ll probably bow out at the quarterfinal stage just like they did at the last three major tournaments. That’s because defensively they’ve struggled to replace veterans such as Mario Yepes and some of their more experienced players in Radamel Falcao and Jackson Martinez won’t be in action this summer.


Costa Rica

Costa Rica and Mexico clash.
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This will be just the fifth time Costa Rica has participated in this tournament as a guest nation. They reached the quarterfinals in both 2001 and 2005.

Star player: Joel Campbell – He’s had an up and down season with Arsenal but his pace, power and clinical finishing mean he will be a real handful.

Los Ticos could surprise everyone and make a deep run: They did it in 2014, why not now? With Bryan Ruiz, Campbell , Keylor Navas and Celso Borges around, they have a real solid core of players who came within penalty kicks of a World Cup semifinal. They’ll surprise again.

However, they will likely just come up short due to defensive weakness: In defense they look a little week and you get the sense that if the balance of this team isn’t right, Navas will be a busy man.


Paraguay

Paraguay's forward Derlis Gonzalez celebrates after scoring against Brazil during their 2015 Copa America football championship quarter-final match, in Concepcion, Chile, on June 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ranked 7th out of the 10 CONMEBOL teams, it is always easy to underestimate Paraguay but they usually perform very well in this tournament. They reached the semifinals last summer in Chile and were runners up in Argentina in 2011.

Star player: Derlis Gonzalez – The Dynamo Kiev forward looked sharp last summer but without Roque Santa Cruz, there are no obvious stars on this team.

Why they will do better than anybody expects: It’s just what they always do. In the Copa America last summer they drew with Uruguay and Argentina in group play and knocked out Brazil on penalties in the quarterfinal. They will fight until the end.

Close, but no cigar: This time around you get the sense that this is a team in transition. Without Santa Cruz they will struggle for goals and fairytale is not in the stars this time.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group A, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Colombia, Costa Rica going through; USA and Paraguay going home

Marquee match: I’m going with USA vs. Colombia in the opener in Santa Clara at Levi Stadium on June 3. Amid much fanfare, expect a tense, exciting game. 

Top players to watch

1) James Rodriguez
2) Juan Cuadrado
3) Joel Campbell
4) Bobby Wood
5) Bryan Ruiz

Lionel Messi sets sights on Copa America glory in USA

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after his teammate Gabriel Mercado scored his side's second goal against Chile during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, Thursday, March 24, 2016. (AP Photo/ Luis Hidalgo)
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Lionel Messi is fired up and ready to roll this summer.

The Barcelona and Argentina superstar, 28, will captain La Albiceleste at the 2016 Copa America Centenario being held across the United States of America this summer.

[ MORE: Mourinho to hold United talks

Argentina is in Group D alongside Chile, Panama and Bolivia and they are the favorites to win the competition this summer.

Messi has been named FIFA’s World Player of the Year five times. He’s won every major trophy with Barcelona.

Yet one thing eludes him: glory with Argentina.

He was part of the Argentine Olympic squad which won Gold at Beijing in 2008 but the mercurial playmaker has never won a major trophy such as a World Cup or Copa America with Argentina.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI? ]

Speaking to Sports Illustrated in first person ahead of this summer, Messi spoke of his fondness for the U.S. after multiple trips to play friendlies with club and country in recent years nd how he aims to end Argentina’s 23-year trophy drought this summer, especially after losing in both the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America finals.

“Of course, outside of my family nothing would make me happier than to win my first World Cup with Argentina in 2018. The Copa America this summer is an important step along the way, a chance to show that we can raise a senior trophy for the first time in 23 years. And if we can do that, it will also mean spending nearly a month in the U.S. and learning more about this special country. If you Americans are looking forward to seeing me in person, trust me: The feeling is mutual.”

See you this summer, Lionel.

Argentina has not won the World Cup since 1986 and the Copa America since 1993. They’re long overdue a trophy and Messi seems hellbent on delivering it during his time as skipper. Gerardo Martino’s side are among the 10 teams from CONMEBOL who will link with six nations from CONCACAF in an expanded format of Copa America to celebrate the competitions 100-year anniversary.

ProSoccerTalk will have full coverage of the entire 16-team Copa America Centenario tournament, which you can find here.