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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.

Antonio in, Barkley out as Allardyce names 1st England squad

NICE, FRANCE - JUNE 27: Wayne Rooney of England in action during the UEFA EURO 2016 round of 16 match between England and Iceland at Allianz Riviera Stadium on June 27, 2016 in Nice, France.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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LONDON (AP) — Sam Allardyce dropped midfielder Ross Barkley on Sunday and called up uncapped winger Michail Antonio for his first England squad since taking charge after the team’s disappointing European Championship campaign.

There were five changes from the 23-man squad that went to France for Euro 2016, with Luke Shaw, Phil Jagielka, Danny Drinkwater and Theo Walcott all returning for the Sept. 4 game against Slovakia in 2018 World Cup qualifying.

Barkley was overlooked despite scoring twice in his first four matches for Everton this season. Antonio has scored twice in West Ham’s first three Premier League games of the season.

Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford drops down to the under-21s and Wayne Rooney was named among the midfielders. Joe Hart remains, despite losing his place as first-choice goalkeeper at Manchester City.

No captain has been named.

Antonio only found out he had been called up after coming off the field at the Etihad Stadium earlier on Sunday, having scored in West Ham’s 3-1 defeat by Manchester City in the Premier League.

“I’m overwhelmed. I got slightly emotional when I found out,” Antonio told West Ham TV, adding that he had rejected Jamaica earlier this year in a bid to keep his England ambitions alive.

“It’s just one of those things that I’ve always dreamt of, playing for England, as a kid, so now for it to happen after I’ve worked my way from non-league to where I am now, I am just so happy.”

England squad

Goalkeepers: Fraser Forster (Southampton), Joe Hart (Manchester City), Tom Heaton (Burnley)

Defenders: Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool), Phil Jagielka (Everton), Danny Rose (Tottenham), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Kyle Walker (Tottenham)

Midfielders: Dele Alli (Tottenham), Michail Antonio (West Ham), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Danny Drinkwater (Leicester), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Theo Walcott (Arsenal)

Fowards: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Jamie Vardy (Leicester)

MLS Snapshot: Orlando City 2-1 New York City FC

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 15:  Kaka #10 of Orlando City SC gives directions to his teammates during an International friendly soccer match between West Bromwich Albion and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on July 15, 2015 in Orlando, Florida. Orlando won the match 3-1. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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The match in 100 words or less: The game started amid pouring rain, seemingly a foreshadow for the home side. Yet another lead at halftime, yet another lead squandered. Then, Kaka decided he didn’t want to go home disappointed again. The Brazilian bagged a penalty – his second goal of the match – to see Orlando City back on top of Eastern Conference powers NYCFC, and the back line held under pressure through the final 20 minutes to keep Orlando’s playoff hopes very much alive.

Three Four moments that mattered:

 

32′ – Kaka did it all himself, and Orlando snatched a 1-0 lead. Bursting down the right flank, Kaka cut inside, weaved around a poor attempt by Jefferson Mena to wall him off, and took two shots on goal. The first was saved by Saunders, but the second snuck in past the goalkeeper spread-eagle on the ground.

55′ – Orlando had a glorious opportunity to putting NYCFC out of reach four minutes later as Cyle Larin and Kevin Molino isolated Mena two-on-one, but Molino’s touch was poor and the ball skittered away from Larin. With the missed chance, Orlando squandered yet another lead a minute later. A shot by Frank Lampard just outside the six-yard box forced a save by Bendik, and the rebound fell to Stiven Mendoza who crashed the equalizer into the back of the net.

62′ – The home side having coughed up yet another lead, Orlando City restored their advantage. Julio Baptista snatched the ball off Jason Hernandez on the left flank deep in NYCFC territory, and he fed Kaka who was felled by Maxine Chanot, forcing the referee to point to the spot. The Brazilian deposited the ensuing penalty past a wrong-footed Saunders, and Orlando went back on top.

70′ – Desperate to stay in the match, NYCFC’s defense caved, then saved the match. Molino beat the offside trap and ended up one-on-one with Saunders, but when he rounded the keeper, it allowed time for Ronald Matarrita to race back and make a desperate clearance at the very last moment. He paid the price, slamming into the post as he slid to clear the ball, but he would return with the game still 2-1.

Man of the Match: Kaka

Goalscorers: Kaka (32′, 63′), Mendoza (55′)

Serie A roundup: Fiorentina edges Chievo, Roma coughs up lead, Inter held

ROME, ITALY - AUGUST 20:  Kevin Strootman of AS Roma in action during the Serie A match between AS Roma and Udinese Calcio at Olimpico Stadium on August 20, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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An early header by Aston Villa loanee Carlos Sanchez gave Fiorentina its first win of the season in their home opener, a 1-0 result over Chievo Verona.

The Villa midfielder rose high above Dario Dainello to smash home the only goal of the match. Unfortunately, there was a catch as starting goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu was forced off just before halftime with an injury. The 30-year-old Romanian international took a kick to the head and could not continue.

Roma was left highly disappointed after coughing up a 2-0 lead, finishing 2-2 on the road at Cagliari. Diego Pierotti gave the visitors the lead at Stadio Sant’Elia just six minutes in by slotting home a penalty. Just after halftime, Kevin Strootman doubled Roma’s lead with his first goal since February of 2014 by poking in Edin Dzeko‘s headed assist from point-blank range.

However, it would come undone. Marco Borriello would pull Cagliari back within one just 10 minutes after Strootman’s score by tapping in a rebound, and Marco Sau poked one in at the far post to equalize in the 87th minute, sending Roma back with just a point.

Frank de Boer’s debut at the San Siro ended in a 1-1 draw with Palermo as Mauro Icardi headed home completely unmarked in in the 72nd minute to cancel out Andrea Rispoli’s opener just after halftime.

Torino pummeled Bologna at home 5-1 behind a hat-trick from Andrea Belotti. The trio is the first hat-trick of the 22-year-old’s professional career. Josef Martinez and Daniele Baselli also found the scoresheet for Torino who earned their first points of the season.

Elsewhere, Udinese used a goal in the first five minutes and another late in stoppage time to beat 10-man Empoli 2-0. Genoa scored three goals in an 11-minute span early in the second half to top Crotone 3-1. Sassuolo grabbed all three points at home with a 2-1 defeat of Pescara. Finally, Sampdoria came back from an early deficit to top 10-man Atalanta 2-1. Fabio Quagliarella scored from the spot to level things up and Sampdoria grabbed the winner a minute before halftime behind Paraguayan Edgar Barreto.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona squeaks out win, Villarreal and Sevilla ends scoreless

SEVILLE, SPAIN - AUGUST 14:  Ivan Rakitic of FC Barcelona in action during the match between Sevilla FC vs FC Barcelona as part of the Spanish Super Cup Final 1st Leg  at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on August 14, 2016 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
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Barcelona rode a first-half header by Ivan Rakitic the whole way to their second win in two league matches with a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

Arda Turan delivered the all-important assist, lofting the ball in from the left as Rakitic came streaking in to trail the play and climb high to meet the ball. Marc-Andre ter Stegen stood tall in goal for the visitors to San Mames, making four saves including one off his face to keep a powerful shot by Benat out of net following an embarrassing mistake from the German that opened up the chance.

Sevilla failed to keep pace with Barcelona and the rest of the teams at the top, slumping to a 0-0 draw at Villarreal. The Rojiblancos couldn’t even muster a shot on target, weathering five from the hosts among 12 overall attempts on net. Both sides wasted chances with sloppy crosses and missed shots, with Villarreal coming closest on a goal called back for offsides just before halftime. A Mateo Musacchio header found substitute Rafael Borre at the back post but the young Colombian was just past his defender.

Nabil El Zhar scored a double and Kevin-Prince Boateng found the scoresheet as well as Las Palmas hammered Granada 5-1 at Estadio Gran Canaria. The 2015 promoted side has now won two games in two after finishing 11th last season.

Deportivo Alaves and Sporting Gijon played to a 0-0 draw at Estadio Mendizorrotza in a match that featured just three combined shots on target.