BRASILIA, BRAZIL - JUNE 23: Neymar of Brazil celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group A match between Cameroon and Brazil at Estadio Nacional on June 23, 2014 in Brasilia, Brazil.

Neymar, Rodríguez: South America’s future shines before the knockout round

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Neymar has been on soccer fans’ radars for so long, it’s strange to think of him as one for the future, but if the Brazilian star’s first year at Barcelona told us anything, it’s that the 22-year-old still has room to improve. A valuable part of a team that finished second in La Liga, the former Santos star failed to meet expectations inflated by his $74 million transfer fee. Though 15 goals across all competitions was good, it still left us wondering what can be.

Two weeks in Brazil have given us another glimpse of that future: three games; two braces; and one sign a transition year between Brazil and Spain need not define the Selecao’s biggest start. With four goals, Neymar sits on top of the 2014 World Cup’s scoring chart, outpacing names like Thomas Müller, Karim Benzema, Robin van Persie, and Arjen Robben, all with three goals.

That only tells part of the Neymar story. Scoring 35 time in 52 appearances during what’s sure to be a record-setting international career, Neymar’s always been able to produce goals, but now moved into the middle of the Selecao attack, the goal-scorer-turned-focal point is at the center of everything his team does. Oscar’s playmaking helps, but through the tournament’s first three games, Neymar has more touches than any non-defender in the squad – part of the reason why, as we approach the midway point of the tournament, he’s has put himself in contention for the Golden Ball.

After Tuesday’s action, James Rodríguez is in the same boat, something even the Colombian’s most ardent supporters would have been pressed to predict when the tournament started. With team’s loss of its own focal point, striker Radamel Falcao, it was unclear how Cafeteros head coach José Pékerman would adjust. Thanks to his own 22-year-old star, the Colombians haven’t missed a beat. With three goals and two assists, Rodríguez may by the World Cup’s most productive player.

source: AP
Colombia’s James Rodriguez celebrates after scoring during the match between Japan and Colombia. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

He may also be tournament’s best, period, a status only emboldened by his 45 minutes today against Japan. On what was supposed to be a day of rest for Ligue 1’s assist leader, Rodríguez came off the bench to redefine the match. Instead of Japan carrying over momentum from their late first half equalizer, James (pronounced in a Spanish style: HAHM ace) asserted control, producing a goal for Jackson Martínez within 10 minutes in his introduction. From there, the Colombian creator did his damage in transition, seemingly making every ball played out of the Colombian defense into a potentially back-breaking counter.

By match’s end, Rodríguez’s 45 minutes had produced a goal, two assists, a 4-1 win, and no memory of his team being completely outplayed before halftime. Whereas once the Colombians looked in danger of being handed their first blemish, the team rolled into the knockout round on the back of a three-goal win, leaving no hint that they’re missing their best player.

Or maybe, they’re not. While it’s too soon to say Rodríguez has eclipsed the influence of Falcao, Tuesday’s performance confirmed that day will eventually come. Every ounce of promise that took Rodríguez from Banfield to Porto and Porto to Monaco was funneled into 45 minutes of the best individual soccer we’ve seen at this tournament. For all the talk of Robben’s performances, Müller-ian opportunism, or the array of goals Benzema could have scored, nobody’s reached the heights Rodríguez did in today’s second half.

Combined, Rodríguez and Neymar have already scored seven times at this World Cup. They’ve showed why Barcelona and Monaco open their vaults to buy then. They’ve provided a glimpse of two talents who could define the next eight years of South American soccer.

And combined, they’re only slightly older than one of Rodriguez’s teammate. Faryd Mondragón became the World Cup’s oldest player today, but at 43 years old, he nearly matches the age of two of the tournament’s brightest stars.

Through three games at this year’s World Cup, their ages haven’t mattered, though for fans around the world, 22 should be a reassuring number. Even if they fall in the knockout round, Neymar and Rodríguez will be back in 2018. And 2022.

WATCH: Premier League TV schedule, stream links – Matchday 7

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Week 7 of the 2016-17 Premier League season as we prepare for a two week break following this weekend.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

It all kicks off on Friday with Everton welcoming Crystal Palace to Goodison Park (3 p.m. ET live on USA and online via NBC Sports.com) as Ronald Koeman and Alan Pardew clash on the sidelines.

On Saturday Swansea host Liverpool (7:30 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) at the Liberty Stadium with Francesco Guidolin under pressure and Jurgen Klopp flying. Then Hull City welcome Chelsea (10 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to the KCOM Stadium as Antonio Conte‘s side look to get back to winning ways after two-straight defeats.

On Sunday we have a busy day as Manchester United host Stoke (7 a.m. ET live NBC and online via NBC Sports.com) to get us going. Then it’s the big game of the weekend as Tottenham welcome Man City to White Hart Lane (9:15 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) in the battle of the Premier League’s two unbeaten teams.

At the same time Leicester City host Southampton (9:15 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) with both teams coming off European action and to round things off Burnley welcome Arsenal (11:30 a.m. ET live on NBCSN and online via NBC Sports.com) to Turf Moor with the Gunners flying after four-straight wins.

You can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App, plus you can also watch Premier League “Goal Rush” at 10 a.m. ET for all the goals as they go in. Goal Rush is available via NBC Sports.com and the NBC Sports App,

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.

FULL TV SCHEDULE

Friday

3 p.m. ET: Everton vs. Crystal Palace – USA [STREAM]

Saturday

7:30 a.m. ET: Swansea vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Hull vs. Chelsea – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Watford vs. Bournemouth – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. West Brom – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: West Ham vs. Middlesbrough – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]

Sunday

7 a.m. ET: Man United vs. Stoke City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:15 a.m. ET: Tottenham vs. Man City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:15 a.m. ET: Leicester City vs. Southampton – CNBC [STREAM]
11:30 a.m. ET: Burnley vs. Arsenal – NBCSN [STREAM

VIDEO: Previews of all 10 Premier League games – Matchday 7

Liverpool's James Milner, left, celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game during their Premier League match Liverpool versus Hull City at Anfield, Liverpool, England, Saturday Sept. 24, 2016. (Dave Howarth/PA via AP)
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We have a busy weekend of games coming up with matches across Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live here ]

The Premier League will take a two-week break after Matchday 7, so make sure you totally immerse yourself in all the action this weekend.

Below you can find previews on all 10 PL games this weekend. Enjoy.


West Ham vs. Middlesbrough

West Ham’s struggles have been widespread and Slaven Bilić is under continual pressure heading into Matchday 7 against Middlesbrough. Ownership has said things need to turn around, but that may not happen this week.

Watford vs. Bournemouth

Watford and Bournemouth, both promoted last season, have quite the history. Will Bournemouth’s momentum carry into Matchday 7?

 

Burnley vs. Arsenal

Arsene Wenger celebrated 20 years at Arsenal this week and despite Burnley’s ability to frustrate the Gunners, it could be another big win for Arsenal.

Swansea vs. Liverpool

Swansea City enters their Round 7 match against Liverpool under a bit of turmoil, which isn’t a good sign because Jurgen Klopp‘s club is firing on all cylinders.

Hull City vs. Chelsea

Chelsea is looking to bounce back after an embarrassing loss to Arsenal, while Hull City attempts to recreate some of their early season magic.

Tottenham vs. Man. City

Manchester City and Tottenham both enter their Round 7 match with unbeaten records. Will one team leave with their first blemish of the season?

Leicester vs. Southampton 

Leicester City has struggled to put together any momentum this season, while Southampton has been on a bit of a roll. Will The Foxes be stunned in Round 7?

Manchester United vs. Stoke City 

With Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini on the bench, Man. United comfortably defeated Leicester City, but will their success continue against Stoke?

Sunderland vs. West Brom

Sunderland is still searching for their first win of the 2016-17 Premier League season, while West Brom is coming off of an exciting 1-1 draw with Stoke City.

Everton vs. Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace is flying high after three straight wins, while Everton is looking to bounce back from a loss to Bournemouth.

Antonio Conte on Chelsea’s struggles: “We haven’t got a magic wand”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte knows turning things around at Chelsea will not be easy.

[ MORE: Wenger to coach England?

Especially since, well, waving a magic wand around will do absolutely nothing to solve their defensive frailties.

Chelsea’s Italian manager was seething following their 3-0 drubbing at Arsenal last weekend as his team looked all over the place defensively and they’ve now conceded nine times in their last four games.

For a manager of Conte’s ilk who prides himself on setting up his teams to be tough to beat and stingy at the back, it hurt him. Big time.

Speaking to the press ahead of Chelsea’s game at Hull City on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) Conte knows the size of the task facing him.

“It is never good when you lose, but I think also in these two games we saw and learnt a lot of important things. We must work very hard to recover,” Conte said. “We finished 10th last season – when you finish 10th it means you have problems. Now we are trying to solve this situation, but we haven’t got a magic wand.

“We faced two teams who were very strong (Liverpool and Arsenal) and for me, these two teams are now at the top. We have a lot to improve, but this is the hope we must have. I see the present and the opportunity to improve, it’s not easy. But we know this.”

The Italian also revealed that captain John Terry will not return for this game so he may well have to continue with the likes of Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic in defense, despite both of those long-time Chelsea defenders going through a tough time in terms of their form.

It will be intriguing to see if Conte switches to a 3-5-2 formation this week at Hull. The Tigers usually only play with one man up front, Abel Hernandez, so it would seem unlikely Conte will add an extra man in the center of his defense.

That said, such has been the shocking nature of Chelsea’s defending in recent weeks, the Italian will try anything — expect from magic — to turn this slump around and get back on track after three-straight wins to start the PL campaign had many people touting them as title contenders.

What is Arsenal’s best XI from Arsene Wenger’s 20 years in charge?

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Wow. This was tough.

With Arsene Wenger celebrating 20 years in charge at Arsenal on October 1, tomorrow, now seems like a good time to look back at all the players he’s managed and pick the best XI during his two decades at the helm of the Gunners.

[ MORE: Wenger to England? ]

Of course his early teams dominated the Premier League, winning three PL titles in his first eight seasons in charge which included the “Invincibles” and going 49 games unbeaten in the Premier League. Arsenal fans won’t need reminding that they haven’t won a title for 12 years but that doesn’t mean plenty more fine players haven’t played for the Gunners in that time period.

Below is my selection of the best XI to play for Arsenal under Wenger, and I urge you to tell us yours in the comments section below.

Remember: At 12:30 p.m. ET, this Saturday, Oct. 1, NBCSN presents a new Premier League Download: Inside the Mind of Arsene Wenger, hosted by The Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett to celebrate 20 years at Arsenal. Promo video is above.


JPW’s best Arsenal XI under Arsene Wenger

—– Seaman —–

— Dixon — Adams — Campbell — Cole —

—- Pires — Vieira — Fabregas — Sanchez —-

—– Henry — Bergkamp —–