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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.

Albert Ruiz scores fastest hat trick to start game in NCAA history

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After being named the NCAA Soccer Men’s Player of the Week, Spanish junior Albert Ruiz went out and set the base for a repeat.

The Florida Gulf Coast striker scored three goals in three minutes and 19 seconds on Tuesday, and the Eagles are battering visiting Rutgers.

[ MORE: Pochettino happy with “must win” defeat of CSKA ]

Not only that, but three goals all came before the game was 10 minutes old (9:02 to be exact). The team’s Twitter account says that’s a record to start a game, besting the record was set by Indiana’s Steve Burks on Oct. 6, 1973. Burks scored his three goals by the 11:41 mark of the first half.

If you look at the clock, too, we think it’s more like nine minutes on the dot.

Ruiz scored seven times in 11 games as a sophomore, and is battering that impressive mark this year. It’s not even halftime at FGCU, and he’s up to 11 goals in his ninth game of the season. That puts him into a tie with Buffalo’s Russell Cicerone for the most goals in men’s D1 soccer (and Ruiz has more than 45 minutes to play).

The 6-foot-2 forward is going to be attracting a lot of attention, especially considering this is his second hat trick in 10 days.

PST Extra: Breaking down the 1v2 clash between Spurs, Man City

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Manchester City visits White Hart Lane for a match-up of this early season’s first and second place Premier League clubs.

City will have one less day of rest than its Premier League rivals, though both are coming off road matches in Europe.

Spurs beat CSKA Moscow 1-0 on Tuesday, while Man City is battling Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany a day later.

[ MORE: Pochettino happy with “must win” defeat of CSKA ]

A win would pull Spurs to within a point of the leaders, while a City victory would guarantee, at-worst, a five-point table advantage for Pep Guardiola‘s bunch.

Kickoff is at 9:15 a.m. ET Sunday, and our own Joe Prince-Wright has the preview for you with the latest PST Extra (above).

Spurs: Pochettino pleased with “must win”, Son admits “a lucky time”

Tottenham's Son Heung-min is hugged by Tottenham's manager Mauricio Pochettino after he scored 1-0 during the Champions League Group E soccer match between CSKA Moscow and Tottenham Hotspur, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
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While it’s easy to call any match “must win” after you’ve won, there’s little doubt how badly Spurs needed their 1-0 win at CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

After making the long hike to Russia, Spurs controlled the match. Both Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min were lively but couldn’t break down the CSKA back line until Son finished a late chance.

From the BBC:

“That was a very important victory. Important to be in the race for the next round of the Champions League. This was a must win game, we are second in the group now but it is still all open.”

And Son admits it was a bit fortunate, as his shot was slowed by Akinfeev before inching across the line.

“This is a good time but also a lucky time. I try every game to score. We are very happy to win this game.”

Spurs are a point behind Monaco, who won at White Hart Lane in both teams’ Group E openers. Next up is a tricky visit from Bayer Leverkusen.

Ranieri laughs off England speculation with quip about bookmakers

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26:  Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Leicester City speaks during a Leicester City press conference ahead of their Champions League match against FC Porto at The King Power Stadium on September 26, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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When it comes to quotes, Claudio Ranieri is one of the best.

The Leicester City manager was put on the spot after Tuesday’s 1-0 UEFA Champions League win over Porto, and handled it well.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Pulisic, BVB best Madrid ]

Asked about his name appearing on betting sites as a favorite to replace disgraced England boss Sam Allardycewho left the job Tuesday — Ranieri responded with a nod to Leicester’s long odds-defying Premier League title run.