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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.

VIDEO: Sinclair passes Mia Hamm as 2nd-highest scorer in history

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Christine Sinclair scored her first goal for Canada in 2000, and today, she scored the 159th goal of her international career.

With goal #159, Sinclair passes Mia Hamm as the second-highest scorer in international soccer history, men or women. Abby Wambach’s record of 184 goals is the all-time mark.

[ REPORT: Obafemi Martins to China ]

Playing for Canada in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, Sinclair gave her country a 3-0 lead over Trinidad & Tobago to reach 159 goals. They would go on to win the match 6-0.

Sinclair, 32, will look to continue her scoring ways and lead Canada to Rio 2016, as the Canadians search for another medal after taking home bronze in 2012.

Report: Sounders’ Obafemi Martins to join Shanghai Shenhua

SEATTLE, WA - MARCH 08:  Obafemi Martins #9 of the Seattle Sounders FC warms up prior to the match against the New England Revolution at CenturyLink Field on March 8, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Obafemi Martins
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The Chinese Super League continues to buy top talent, as Obafemi Martins looks set to join Shanghai Shenhua.

According to a report from the BBC, the Seattle Sounders’ striker will leave Major League Soccer for a “multi-million dollar deal” in China.

Should this deal go through, Martins would join a list of top talents who have moved to the Chinese Super League this winter, including Chelsea’s Ramires.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Martins has scored 43 goals in 84 appearances for Seattle since joining the club in 2013, named to the MLS Best XI in 2014 and the All-Star team in 2015.

If the 31-year-old was to leave, it would open up a potential starting spot for the USMNT’s Jordan Morris, who signed a record-breaking homegrown player contract with the Sounders last month.

[ MORE: Player ratings from Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Leicester City ]

Before moving to America, Martins played throughout Europe, spending most of his career with Inter Milan and Newcastle. He has earned 41 caps for the Nigerian national team.

At Shanghai Shenhua, Martins would line-up alongside former Premier League players Tim Cahill and Demba Ba, as wells as Fredy Guarin, who joined Shenhua in January from Inter Milan.

VIDEO: Barcelona work brilliant penalty as Messi dishes to Suarez from the spot

BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 14:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates with his teammates Neymar (L) and Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona after scoring the opening goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Celta Vigo at Camp Nou on February 14, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Barcelona is really, really good.

With their last loss coming all the way back on October 3, Barca remained unbeaten and put on a Sunday show in La Liga action, thrashing Celta Vigo, 6-1.

[ MORE: Premier League roundup ]

The highlight of the match came in the 81st minute when Barcelona was awarded a penalty. Lionel Messi stepped up to the spot, and did this:

The classic Cruyff penalty kick, it looks so good when it works, but is very risky and could end in disaster. Just ask Robert Pires…

The goal gave Luis Suarez a hat-trick and showed the ridiculous amount of confidence this Barcelona side has right now, as no one in the world has an answer for the Messi-Neymar-Suarez trio.

Pellegrini rues “absolutely wrong” penalty decision in City’s loss to Spurs

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Raheem Sterling of Manchester City protests with referee Mark Clattenburg after he awarded a penalty for his hand ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Manchester City fell 2-1 to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday in a massive battle in the Premier League title race.

[ RECAP: Man City 2-1 Spurs ]

While Christian Eriksen‘s late winner was the game’s deciding goal, it was Harry Kane‘s opener from the penalty spot that has caused some controversy.

Tottenham’s Danny Rose whipped in a cross that was blocked away by a jumping Raheem Sterling in the 54th minute. Sterling had his back to the ball, but the cross took a deflection off his elbow and referee Mark Clattenburg signaled for a penalty.

Speaking after the match, City boss Manuel Pellegrini was extremely angered by the decision, saying City were the better side until the penalty changed the flow of the match. Pellegrini also thought back to Tottenham’s win over Man City in September when the same official was in charge when Spurs scored two goals that looked to be offside.

It was a penalty that referee Mark Clattenburg wanted to sign for and he gave the sign. It was absolutely the wrong decision, it hit the back of Raheem Sterling then his elbow. Sterling was not even seeing the ball. It was the same referee in the first game where there were two clear goals in offside and we lost 4-1.

It was the key moment that decided the game; before that they did not shoot towards our goal and did not have any chances. We took the risks, the spirit of the team was good but it was not enough.

The rules regarding a hand-ball have been the topic of much conversation this season, as there seems to be a gray area where officials are forced to make judgement calls, with this decision very harsh.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Tottenham’s win over Man City ]

Now six points behind leaders Leicester, Manchester City will take a break from Premier League action and play a string of important cup ties. First up is a fifth-round FA Cup match against Chelsea before a long trip to Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League, followed by the League Cup final against Liverpool.