FBL-BRAZIL-SANTOS-FLAMENGO-NEYMAR

One-man Plan B: Neymar could fill Barcelona’s biggest need

4 Comments

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.

San Jose Earthquakes release Clarence Goodson, eight others

San Jose Earthquakes forward Quincy Amarikwa (25) is mobbed by teammates after scoring against the Portland Timbers during the first half of an MLS soccer match Sunday, March 13, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Leave a comment

While the battle for MLS Cup 2016 has been dwindled down to two sides, the rest of the league continues to make roster transactions in preparation for next season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The San Jose Earthquakes announced on Friday that the club has exercised options on six players, including goalkeeper David Bingham, Fatai Alashe, Kip Colvey and Victor Bernardez.

Additionally, the Earthquakes have released nine players, including U.S. Men’s National Team defender Clarence Goodson, Marc Pelosi and Tommy Thompson, however, the latter two are reportedly in talks to return to the club in 2017.

Napoli beats Inter 3-0 in Serie A after lightning start

NAPLES, ITALY - DECEMBER 02:  Players of Napoli celebrate the opening goal during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and FC Internazionale at Stadio San Paolo on December 2, 2016 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NAPLES, Italy (AP) Napoli eased to a 3-0 win over Inter Milan in Serie A on Friday, with two goals in the opening five minutes.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines heading into weekend ]

The home side got off to a lightning start as, following a wonderful team move, Jose Callejon headed back Marek Hamsik’s chipped pass for Piotr Zielinski to volley into the bottom left corner.

[ MORE: Ronaldo, Mourinho involved in massive tax evasion system ]

Zielinski turned provider moments later as Hamsik beat the offside trap to run onto his pass and fire into the bottom right corner.

It was Hamsik’s 104th goal for Napoli, moving him level with Edinson Cavani in third in the clubs’ goalscoring charts. The Slovakia forward needs 11 more to equal Diego Maradona’s record.

Inter started the second half aggressively but hopes of getting back into the match were scuppered six minutes after the restart when Lorenzo Insigne netted his fourth goal in three league matches after visiting goalkeeper Samir Handanovic only flapped at a corner.

Napoli moved level on points with Atalanta, which visits league leader Juventus on Saturday, and fourth-placed Lazio, which hosts Roma in the capital derby on Sunday.

Inter, which beat Fiorentina 4-2 on Monday for its first win under coach Stefano Pioli, remained eighth ahead of the rest of the weekend’s fixtures.

Report: Paraguayan midfielder Almiron to join Atlanta United for $13 million

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 11:  Miguel Almiron #17 of Paraguay tries to keep the ball as John Brooks #6 of United States slides in the first half during the Copa America Centenario Group C match at Lincoln Financial Field on June 11, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images
Leave a comment

On a day where Atlanta United added another young talent, the 2017 MLS expansion side could be preparing to make a major splash for a South American playmaker.

According to numerous Argentine media outlets, Atlanta is closing in on signing Paraguay international Miguel Almiron for an MLS-record fee of $13 million from Lanus at the end of 2016.

Almiron, 22, has scored three goals in 34 appearances for Lanus since joining the Argentine club in 2015. The young winger began his professional career back in 2013 with Cerro Porteno, where Almiron also played for the club’s youth academy.

On the international stage, Almiron has already earned seven caps for Paraguay after previously representing the nation’s Under-17 and U-20 national teams.

El Clasico Preview: Barcelona looks to break Real Madrid’s hold on La Liga

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 02:  Casemiro of Real Madrid CF battles for the ball with Neymar of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on April 2, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Alex Caparros/Getty Images
Leave a comment

It could very well be the greatest rivalry in all of sports, and Saturday will see another installment of El Clasico in Spain’s top flight.

[ MORE: Messi looking to end El Clasico scoring drought ]

Barcelona will host Real Madrid on Saturday at the Camp Nou (10 a.m. ET on beIN Sport) as the Blaugrana look to hand the Madridistas their first loss of the La Liga season.

[ MORE: Griezmann joins Ronaldo, Messi for FIFA’s Best Player award ]

Through 13 rounds of play, Real remains the only unbeaten side in La Liga, sitting on 33 points atop the first division. Barca finds itself six points back, however, a victory would go a long way in cutting down Real’s advantage.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s 10 goals in league play thus far has paced Real to its hot start, which includes a 20-match unbeaten streak in all competitions dating back to the start of the La Liga calendar.

The Portuguese attacker will need to continue his brilliance this weekend, though, as Real is forced to cope without Welsh star Gareth Bale. The winger is expected to miss four months after undergoing an ankle operation recently.

Meanwhile, Barcelona enters the Clasico in less-than-ideal form for a club with massive expectations. Luis Enrique’s side has gone unbeaten in its last five matches across all competitions, but the Blaugrana have looked less than convincing in that span.

“It’s a special game and we want to make the team and fans happy. I expect 100,000 people cheering us on,” said Enrique. “The game tomorrow is a chance to beat Real Madrid and to get closer to the top of the table, nothing more.

“Controlling your emotions is basic. In a game like this one, what happens on the field has little to do with the league table.”

Temperament will surely be key for both sides in the contentious matchup, particularly with the meeting being historically one of great physicality. Red cards have been shown in the last two meetings, with Real players both being the recipients of the ejections (Sergio Ramos & Isco).

Lionel Messi and his 21 previous Clasico goals will prove to be crucial for Barcelona as they look to put the first blemish on Real’s record in 2016. The Argentine has 19 goals in all tournaments, making his presence an absolute must if Barca is to snatch a victory.

Real earned a victory in their most recent encounter with Barca, a 2-1 result in April 2016, where Ronaldo netted the game-winner inside the final five minutes of play.