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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.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 14

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Week 14 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 14 ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Stoke City 2-0 Burnley – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 3-1 Swansea City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 0-2 Southampton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Man City 1-2 Chelsea – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

West Ham 2-3 Arsenal – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

West Brom 1-1 Watford – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Bournemouth 1-2 Liverpool – (Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Middlesbrough 1-0 Hull City – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Everton 2-2 Man United – (Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Sunderland 2-1 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Conte, Guardiola share thoughts on each other ahead of Chelsea-Man City

COBHAM, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Chelsea Manager, Antonio Conte watches on during the Premier League 2 match between Chelsea and Southampton at Chelsea Training Ground on November 21, 2016 in Cobham, England.  (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images
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It’s no surprise that the managers are in focus as tactical wizards Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola prepare to face off for the first time.

The Etihad Stadium will be the scene for Saturday’s 7:30 a.m. EDT kickoff, and pur own Joe Prince-Wright was on the scene for Friday’s prematch presser.

He shared the sentiments of the Stamford Bridge boss, who was — no surprise — asked about Guardiola.

[ MAN UTD: Schweinsteiger could stay ]

“I have great respect (for Guardiola),” Conte said. “I think he is a fantastic manager and is doing fantastic work with Manchester City.”

One terrific little run from Conte had to do with the differences between him and Guardiola… as players. The Chelsea and Man City bosses both played in Serie A during the early part of this century.

“He was a fantastic midfielder and we had different characteristics. He was more of a pivot in front of the defensive line. I was more offensive, with penetration. I think I ran more than him, but he thought more than me with the ball.”

It wasn’t long before Guardiola was asked for his thoughts on Conte. Here they are, courtesy Sky Sports:

“He (Antonio Conte) made an exceptional job in Turin and in the national job. It doesn’t matter if it is Serie A or the national team, you realise his strengths.

“He has started here with maybe not good results, but they have won last seven games, conceding one goal. That says a lot about how good they are. They were contenders to win the Premier League from the beginning.

“Now, maybe more than before. It’s a good test for us.”

Who’s excited for Saturday’s early kickoff?

Follow @NicholasMendola

Chapecoense tragedy survivor could recover to play again

ADDS NAMES - In this Nov. 2, 2016 photo, players of Brazil's Chapecoense team pose before a Copa Sudamericana soccer match against Argentina's San Lorenzo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Top row from left, goalkeeper Marcos Danilo Padilha, Bruno Rangel Domingues, Helio Hermito Zampier Neto, Cleber Santana Loureiro, Willian Thiago. Bottom row from left, Guilherme Gimenez de Souza, Ananias Eloi Castro Monteiro, Tiago "Tiaguinho" Da Rocha Vieira, Matheus Bitencourt da Silva, Dener Assuncao Braz and Jose "Gil" Gildeixon Clemente de Paiva. A plane carrying the Brazilian soccer club Chapecoense team that was on it's way for a Copa Sudamericana final match against Colombia's Atletico Nacional crashed in a mountainous area outside Medellin, Colombian officials said Tuesday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)
AP Photo/Gustavo Garello
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Remarkably, one of the Chapecoense players who survived the deadly plane crash in Colombia may yet take the field again.

Remarkable? Maybe that’s too tame. Astonishing, perhaps.

Helio Hermito Zampier Neto, 31, needed knee, lung, wrist, and head surgery following the crash that killed 71 people.

[ USMNT: Moyes updates Gooch injury ]

It’s a comeback story that will be followed by many, and Neto’s father says it’s very real. The center back bounced between Brazil’s Serie A and B, even going on loan at a Serie D side before finding his place at Chape.

From the BBC:

Neto’s father, Helam, said on Facebook that news of his recovery was giving the family “renewed hope and faith”.

“My son is getting better and better. He has just undergone surgery on his leg and doctors say he will return to football,” he said.

“We shall continue praying because we still need his discharge from hospital to see him closely.”

Forca Chape.

Follow @NicholasMendola

WATCH, STREAM: Premier League TV schedule – Week 14

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Week 14 of the 2016-17 Premier League season is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

Manchester City host Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday (7:30 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) as two title contenders collide. Pep Guardiola vs. Antonio Conte. Sergio Aguero vs. Diego Costa. It will be a mammoth clash as first plays third.

Then Tottenham Hotspur look to bounce back from their first defeat of the season as they host Swansea City (10 a.m. ET live NBCSN andonline via NBC Sports.com) at White Hart Lane. Bob Bradley‘s Swansea got their first win under his stewardship last week and they’ll look to build on that and drag themselves out of the relegation zone.

As the same time struggling Crystal Palace welcome Southampton to Selhurst Park (10 a.m. ET live CNBC and online via NBC Sports.com) with Alan Pardew looking to avoid a seventh-straight defeat which could mean the end for him in south London. Saints are on a good run after wins against Everton and Arsenal in their last two game.s

Rounding things off on Saturday we have a big London derby between West Ham and Arsenal (12:30 p.m. ET live NBC and online via NBC Sports.com) at the London Stadium with Arsene Wenger‘s side looking to go 13 games unbeaten in the PL. West Ham have shored things up at the back in recent weeks and Slaven Bilic will look to Dimtri Payet and a hostile atmosphere to try and get past the Gunners.

On Sunday Bournemouth host Liverpool (8:30 a.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with Jurgen Klopp‘s side looking to stay in touch at the top and get through a spell of injuries impacting their forwards. The Cherries have a young, hungry team and will be eager to take a big scalp and grab a first-ever win against Liverpool. Later on Sunday Everton welcome Manchester United to Goodison Park (11 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with both teams so far failing to live up to lofty preseason expectations as they’re losing ground with the top four.

On Monday Middlesbrough welcome Hull City to the Riverside Stadium (3 p.m. ET live NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) in a big battle in the north east with both teams eager to move up to the table and edge towards 40 points as quickly as possible.

You can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App, plus you can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.


FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday
7:30 a.m. ET: Man City  vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Swansea City – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Southampton – CNBC [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Brom vs. Watford – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. Leicester City – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Stoke City vs. Burnley  – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
12:30 p.m. ET:  West Ham vs. Arsenal – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday
8:30 a.m. ET: Bournemouth vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]
11 a.m. ET: Everton vs. Man United – NBCSN [STREAM]

Monday
3 p.m. ET: Middlesbrough vs. Hull City – NBCSN [STREAM]