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.

Championship playoff contenders all but confirmed

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It was a pivotal day in England’s second-tier as the four playoff teams set to battle it out for a place in the Premier League have all but been confirmed.

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After the results in the penultimate weekend Huddersfield Town, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday are definitely in the playoffs (where they will finish in the standings is still up in the air) and Fulham have all but joined them after they drew 1-1 with Brentford at Craven Cottage.

That means they’re three points clear of Leeds United who are seventh and they also have a goal differential of +27 to Leeds’ +14. So, there needs to be a 13 goal swing on the final day of the Championship season for Leeds to finish above Fulham and nick the final playoff spot.

Yup. Not going to happen…

For fans of U.S. Soccer there will be plenty of intrigued in these playoffs as USMNT players Danny Williams (Reading) and Tim Ream (Fulham) will feature, plus German-American manager David Wagner has guided Huddersfield to the top six in his first full season in charge of the Terriers.

The two-legged playoff semifinals will take place after the regular season ends on May 5 and then the winners of those semifinals will compete in the Championship playoff final, known as the richest game in soccer, at Wembley on May 26 for a place in the Premier League.

Below is a look at the Championship table with one round of games to go as Brighton (already promoted automatically to the PL along with Newcastle) can seal the title with a win against Bristol City late on Saturday.


Relegated Sunderland “obviously distraught”; Moyes wants to stay

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Neither John O'Shea nor David Moyes had been relegated during their long careers in football.

That changed Saturday.

The former Manchester United defender and Everton manager saw Sunderland drop into the second tier after a bevy of wasted chances and a lapse at the back perfectly summed up their season in England.

[ RECAP: Sunderland 0-1 Bournemouth ]

Moyes wants to stick around and help Sunderland back to the Premier League the way Rafa Benitez did this season in the Championship. Here’s what he said on NBCSN after the match:

“I feel for the supporters. They put their hard-earned cash out there to support the team, and my thoughts are really with them today.

“Yeah, the job’s to make sure that we get ourselves prepared and ready but we’re in this position, to talk about it now is just too quick.”

As for O’Shea, he’s clearly gutted and exasperated. The veteran Irish back did not have a strong season along with the majority of his teammates, and is left grasping for answers.

“Look, we’re obviously distraught. We all wanted the support that we got today. It’s not a nice feeling.

“Performances, results, are the obvious things at the end of the season. The detail never lies. We haven’t kept enough clean sheets, we haven’t taken enough chances. We needed a miracle run to save us, and we couldn’t produce it.”

The Black Cats were kept alive by Jermain Defoe‘s heroics for most of the season, but the striker went ice cold with finishing from February onward. The club rarely looked the part this season, and this might not be a short spell away from the top flight.

Stoke City 0-0 West Ham: Stalemate in the Potteries

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  • Stoke, West Ham waste chances
  • Potters move on to 40 points
  • West Ham have 39 points

Stoke and West Ham played out a tense 0-0 draw at the bet365 Stadium on Saturday.

Marko Arnautovic went close for Stoke and so did Andre Ayew for the Hammers but both Adrian and Jack Butland were in fine form in goal.

The draw means Stoke reach the 40-point marker but they drop 12th place in the table, while West Ham remain in 14th and have 39 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The first big chance of the game fell to Stoke as Marko Arnautovic cut the ball back from the left side of the box to find Saido Berahino and his powerful effort was well blocked by Winston Reid.

Stoke continued to do most of the pressing early on and West Ham’s best chance came from a free kick as Jose Fonte’s header was deflected over the bar.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

West Ham then had a great chance to go ahead as Fernandes’ cross found Jonathan Calleri but he blazed over the bar. Moments later Andre Ayew’s overhead kick was then denied brilliantly by Jack Butland who made a phenomenal stop on his first appearance back at the bet365 Stadium.

Stoke finished the half well as Glen Johnson brilliantly burst into the box and his ball to the near post was poked wide by Fonte just as Arnautovic was ready to tap home and moments late Fonte blocked by Berahino as Joe Allen cut the ball back.

Right on half time Calleri then made a terrible mess of a great chance as he tried a rabona instead of slotting home. 0-0.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

The second half started brightly as Allen had a volley just wide and Cheikhou Kouyate saw his effort go wide of Butland’s far post.

Good work from Arnautovic then led to a chance to Xherdan Shaqiri but he fired just wide under pressure. Allen’s shot from distance caused Adrian some problems and West Ham’s goalkeeper also pushed away an effort from Berahino.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Ayew then forced Butland into a save from a shot and a header as the Hammers pushed hard for a winner late on.

Stoke went close to snatching all three points as a fine ball into the box found Arnautovic but Adrian denied his volley superbly and scrambled clear at the second attempt.

Southampton 0-0 Hull: Jakupovic the hero in late PK drama

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  • Jakupovic saves Tadic’s late PK
  • Hull three points clear of bottom three
  • Saints move on to 41 points

Hull City held on at Southampton on Saturday to grab a vital point in their battle against relegation.

In a game which saw few goalscoring chances created, Edlin Jakupovic emerged as Hull’s hero as he saved Dusan Tadic‘s poor penalty kick in second half stoppage time.

With the point Hull move three clear of the relegation zone and have 34 points, while Southampton move on to 41 points and remain in ninth place in the table.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Hull looked lively early on as Kamil Grosicki broke on the counter and his low shot hit the side-netting.

The Polish winger went even closer moments later as he curled a free kick up and over the wall but the ball clipped the outside of the post and went wide.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Hull continued to launch long balls forward and one of those caught out Maya Yoshida as Oumar Niasse raced free but Jack Stephens deflected his effort wide.

The visitors looked the more likely to open the scoring in an even first half.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Saints started the second half brightly with Sofiane Boufal working some space on the edge of the box but Harry Maguire blocked well at the crucial moment and moments later Dusan Tadic had an effort deflected wide.

Puel then brought on Shane Long and Josh Sims for Boufal and Manolo Gabbiadini as he tried to spark fresh impetus into Saints’ attack.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Late on Saints pushed hard to find a winner as Tadic saw his shot saved by Jakupovic after Hull’s goalkeeper had initially punched a clearance down into the box. Niasse then had a good chance but got it all wrong and belted the ball over from the edge of the box.

Southampton then had a glorious chance to win the game in stoppage time as Yoshida was hauled down in the box by Alfred N'Diaye but Tadic’s penalty kick was superbly saved by Jakupovic who was once again the hero for Hull.

The Tigers almost snatched all three points late on as Niasse’s scrambled effort was cleared off the line by Cedric Soares.