Neymar's injury was the main story for Brazil, as their star man was ruled out.

Willian, Hulk, and Fred: What Neymar’s absence means for Brazil

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When Neymar emerged in the Brazilian national team, he was a wide attacker that served as more of an outlet than a focal point.  Over time, that outlet’s slowly developed into a playmaker, one that Brazil head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari moved to the middle of the attack before the World Cup. A text book number 10, he’s not, but by the time the team kicked off its tournament against Croatia, Neymar certainly had become the focal point of his country’s attack.

Without him, Scolari needs to re-think how his team generates chances, and while we shouldn’t expect a huge shift in formation or style, a deep attack will have be creative with its options to replace the Neymar’s impact.

Here’s what might change in Brazil’s Neymar-less world:

1. Willian will likely come into Scolari’s team – There’s also a chance Ramires, who started for Hulk in the team’s second group stage match, could move into Scolari’s starting lineup. Bernard, a slight but quick 21-year-old winger is an option, too, but given the type of player Brazil has lost, Willian’s the more likely choice.

An attacking midfielder who moved to Chelsea last summer, Willian can play anywhere across the three in Scolari’s 4-2-3-1, though he’ll likely be deployed wide. Highly skilled, intelligent in possession, and a great striker of the ball, the 25-year-old also offers a high work rate, something that could prove especially valuable if he’s played opposite Phillip Lahm. If that happens, Hulk will be allowed to move back to his preferred right side, with a centrally deployed Oscar allowing the team to more-easily shift between a three- and two-man midfield. Against possession-hogging Germany, that could prove especially valuable.

A former standout at Shakhtar Donetsk, William offers a different type of creativity to Brazil’s attack, albeit at the expense of Neymar’s goal scoring. His familiarity with club teammate Oscar will help as the 22-year-old becomes more of a focal point in the team’s attack, while his crossing could get more out of Fred in the middle. In the space in front of the defense, he’ll provide a second player able to play a final ball, putting more pressure on Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger to pick him up when he comes off the wing.

With both Willian and Oscar capable of attacking across the width of the field, Brazil can target specific weaknesses in the German defense. Scolari may not need to return Dani Alves to the team to outnumber left back Benedikt Höwedes.

Downgrading from Neymar to Willian certainly hurts, but the true impact of that swap will likely be felt elsewhere. Few nations are lucky enough to have a player like Willian in reserve.

source: AP
Brazil’s Fred holds off Colombia’s Mario Yepes during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Brazil and Colombia. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

2. Fred’s role may change – Brazil’s heat maps showed something that’s confusing, if you think of Neymar as his team’s central playmaker. Often over the course of 90 minutes, his average position rivaled Fred’s, Brazil’s forward. While Scolari moving Neymar to the middle allowed his best player to play a bigger part in Brazil’s attack, it allow allowed him to push forward and play along the line when Fred dropped back to win and hold up the ball.

That dynamic changes if Willian comes in. For all his talents, he’s not someone plays along the defense. Neither is Oscar. Fred can continue to drop back to help Brazil get out of their own half, but there’s no Neymar to burst forward to fill that space.

Ideally, instead of playing as much with his back to goal, Fred would stay higher, trying to push central defenders Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng. Regardless, is movement will become much more important. As Germany’s fullbacks have to deal with Hulk, fullback Marcelo, or possibly Alves, his ability to exploit the channels could be the difference between merely having Oscar and Willian’s skills and truly leveraging them. If he can’t, we may see Jô come on earlier than usual.

3. Hulk’s movement will matter more – In that same vein, Hulk’s ability to play higher and provide an option for Oscar and Willian’s creativity could be more important. Whereas with Neymar it was more important to read defenses as they reacted to Brazil’s focal point, creating options for the team’s playmakers may prove more important against Germany. Instead of waiting for Oscar and Willian to generate space, Hulk and Fred will need to read the defense and adjust. As the German’s adjust to Brazil’s two creators, Hulk could have space to exploit.

There’s also the chance Hulk can see more opportunities isolated against defenders if his team becomes less worried about maintaining space for Neymar. If Oscar and Willian team up toward the left or middle, Hulk may have room to take on Höwedes and cut onto his favored left foot. Clearing their right side for Hulk may also give Scolari reason keep Maicon at right back, knowing Alves will only be blocked fi he tries to get forward.

source: Getty Images
Hulk has failed to score in four games, but with Neymar out, his production could prove vital in the World Cup’s semifinals. (Source: Getty Images)

The undercurrent here, though, is the importance of replacing Neymar’s scoring. With four goals in five games, Neymar was responsible for 40 percent of his team’s production. Hulk, who has failed to score thus far, is one of the few players who can replicate that threat.

He needs to be put in positions to succeed. Against a team of Germany’s caliber, he may also need to deliver.

4. Will Scolari be tempted to use Paulinho – If Scolari’s looking for other way to replace Neymar’s goal scoring, restoring Paulinho to the starting XI could work. The Spurs midfielder was back in the team that faced Colombia, but only because Luiz Gustavo was suspended due to a second yellow card. With the Wolfsburg midfielder available, it’s expected he’ll partner Fernandinho in the middle.

Paulinho, however, provides more of a threat going forward, with his ability to read a defense from deep and exploit available space, particularly valuable if Oscar and Willian can play well. Whereas Gustavo is a pure destroyer and Fernandinho’s more comfortable in a deeper role, Paulinho’s main value is his ability to be that extra man in the box.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t played very well this tournament. Though his showing against Colombia was an improvement on what we saw in group stage, he still wasn’t as good as Fernandinho, who took his spot in the starting lineup before the knockout round. On performance alone, there’s almost not augment for choosing Paulinho over one of Scolari’s two other options.

But with Oscar potentially augmenting that two-man midfield, Brazil may be able to sacrifice one of Gustavo or Fernandinho. If, however, he feels Scolari thinks his team is capable of generating chances with just his attackers, Paulinho should be on the bench when the teams kick off on Tuesday.

Zidane’s Madrid on cusp of setting new unbeaten record

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03: Zinedine Zidane, Manager of Real Madrid looks on during the La Liga  match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Zinedine Zidane is one match away from coaching Real Madrid to a new unbeaten record.

When Zidane replaced Rafa Benitez midway through last season, the inexperienced former midfield standout got off to an auspicious start with a 5-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna.

Eleven months and one Champions League title later, Madrid faces Deportivo again at home on Saturday with the chance of surpassing its longest unbeaten run since the club was founded in 1902.

On Wednesday, Madrid equaled a club record of 34 games without a loss set in 1989 under coach Leo Beenhakker when it drew 2-2 with Borussia Dortmund.

“It’s important to continue to make history and continue our good run,” Zidane said after the match. “I don’t think it’s very important for me to leave my mark. What interests me the most is to continue with this great run that we’re on.”

Last season, when Real Madrid president Florentino Perez tapped Zidane to take over a struggling team, the decision smelled of desperation.

A fan favorite from his playing days as part of Madrid’s “galaticos” bunch, Zidane was promoted from coaching the reserve team to take over a side that was lurching from one embarrassing episode to the next.

Madrid’s 2015-16 campaign had started with Perez flubbing his play to sign away Manchester United goalie David De Gea. The team was then disqualified from the Copa de Rey for fielding an illegible player, and it endured a 4-0 defeat from Barcelona at home as it failed to click with Benitez.

Perez needed to make an impact move. But instead of searching for a veteran manager, he charged the unproven Zidane with turning around Madrid’s group of talented underachievers.

At first, the team remained erratic, and even looked set to bow out of the Champions League after a shocking 2-0 loss at German side Wolfsburg.

But that defeat on April 6 proved to be a catalyst. The team hasn’t lost since, recovering to claim its 11th European Cup and almost nip Barcelona for the Spanish league crown, before roaring out to lead la Liga this season.

Zidane, whose top-tier coaching experience had been limited to his stint as an assistant under Carlo Ancelotti, has now reached the half-century mark as head manager. During that 50-match period, he has overseen 37 wins, 11 draws and only two losses. That other loss came at Atletico Madrid in February.

“The players have to be congratulated. They’re the ones out on the pitch, it’s them who run, fight and dig in,” Zidane said. “We also have to thank the fans, who always get behind the team and support us. They’ve got to take some credit for what the team is achieving”.

Gifted with world-class stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, Zidane focused on getting more from Madrid’s supporting cast. He put a new emphasis on defense in his midfield by favoring Mateo Kovacic and Casemiro over flashier playmakers James Rodriguez and Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, and he has helped the little-known Lucas Vazquez blossom into an important piece of its attack.

“(Zidane) has gotten us to work hard and for things to go well for us, and that is paying off with this run of 34 unbeaten games,” defender Dani Carvajal said. “Everyone on the team has words of praise for him.”

Whereas the draw with Dortmund was disappointing because it cost Madrid a first-place finish in its Champions League group, its 1-1 stalemate earned last weekend at Barcelona tasted of victory. The “clasico” draw kept Madrid six points clear of Barcelona at the top of the Spanish table.

After it plays Deportivo, Madrid heads to Japan for the Club World Cup.

If Zidane sets the new club mark, his next goal would be the milestone held by Barcelona under counterpart Luis Enrique, whose 39-game unbeaten run was ended by Madrid last April.

Top 5 Premier League storylines for Week 15: Chelsea top, Leicester tested

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Arsenal at London Stadium on December 3, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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This weekend is absolutely critical for the Premier League. Last time out, the top of the table kept pace and little changed. This time around, there is danger lurking for much of the top. Arsenal, Liverpool, and Spurs all have difficult tests, but can Tony Pulis be the one to pin Chelsea back?

Spurs and Manchester United 9:15 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com) meet with both teams clawing for scraps from those above them. These two teams very well could be battling it out for a final Champions League place at the end of the season, meaning this matchup could go a long way in building a true gap in the table.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho failing to adapt at Manchester United ]

The bottom of the table is fascinating as well. Bob Bradley has his biggest chance yet to pull the Swans off the bottom against Sunderland amid the noise, while Hull City and Crystal Palace have a key meeting.

1. Moving day for Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Brom — 7:00 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com

Chelsea is in the best form of any Premier League team in years. Their clean sheet streak predictably ended two games ago, but it hasn’t stopped the Blues’ fine run. They’ve won eight in a row and look impossible to stop. Can Pulis-ball keep the Blues at bay? They’re three points on top of the table, and another win would likely give them even more space considering tough matches for the other top teams.

2. Any magic left in the tank for Leicester City?

Leicester City vs. Manchester City — 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

The Foxes topped their Champions League group, but things continue to look more and more bleak in league play. Claudio Raneiri admitted they’re in a relegation battle with the Foxes just two points above the drop. But we’ve learned not to count this team out already, and a win against Pep Guardiola‘s stumbling team could be more than just three points.

Speaking of Manchester City, Pep was pipped by fellow first-time Premier League manager Antonio Conte last weekend, and then held to a 1-1 draw with Celtic in midweek Champions League action. However, City has taken care of business so far this season against weaker opponents, and the Foxes certainly seem to be just that at this point.

Claudio Ranieri admitted Leicester City is in a relegation battle (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Claudio Ranieri admitted Leicester City is in a relegation battle (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

3. Will Arsenal stumble against Stoke?

Arsenal vs. Stoke City — 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

For all the heat the Gunners have (unfairly?) taken this season, Alexis Sanchez has them just three points off the top. For Arsenal to still be one game off Chelsea despite the Blues’ fabulous run is somewhat remarkable, and for them to have thus far weathered the storm, it would be truly something to see them capitalize on a slip-up from Conte.

[ MORE: Sanchez among Premier League’s best 5 players ]

However, Stoke has been here before. The Potters have conceded just three goals in their last seven matches, including a pair with clean sheets; if anyone can stop Sanchez’s amazing form, it’s the Mark Hughes and the defensively stout Potters. A win for Stoke could potentially see them jump as high as sixth, could they go on the road and halt the Gunners? It’s possible, but a 315-minute shutout streak vs. Stoke for Arsenal puts things squarely in Arsene Wenger‘s favor before kickoff.

4. Bob Bradley’s golden opportunity

Swansea City vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. ET Saturday, NBCSports.com

Bob Bradley has taken plenty of flak at Swansea City, and rightly so. Since his anointment as the first American manager in England’s top flight, the Swans have picked up just five points and still sit bottom of the table, two points back of anyone else. But to be fair, the competition has been tough. The four losses since his appointment have come against Arsenal, Stoke City, Manchester United, and Tottenham, and he picked up a pair of points against 8th placed Everton and 11th placed Watford. Now is his chance to pick the Swans off the bottom with a win against those directly above him.

[ RELATED: Swansea issues vote of confidence for Bob Bradley ]

Sunderland visits Wales sitting in 18th, and should Swansea win, they would jump above the Black Cats. The task is no given, however, with Sunderland owning three wins in its last four, meaning they’ve picked up nine of their 11 total points in the last month. Bradley fended off much criticism the past week, and if he’s going to silence those calls for his job after just two months, this is a must-win.

5. West Ham finishes gauntlet stretch

Liverpool vs. West Ham United — 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday, NBCSports.com

The Hammers are in the midst of a brutal run of matches where they have just two points, putting them a single point above the relegation zone. The teams they’ve played? Everton, Stoke City, Spurs, Manchester United, Arsenal. Yikes. And yet, if West Ham aspire to the heights they reached last season, Slaven Bilic will expect better. Can the Hammers get a result against the high-flying Reds? Liverpool sits four points off the top, but goalkeeper Loris Karius was exposed last week in the stunning Bournemouth comeback, and it’s possible that disappointment leaves a lasting impact. Who will prevail?

FA bans Leeds owner Massimo Cellino 18 months

LEEDS, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Massimo Cellino President and Director of Leeds United during the Sky Bet Championship match between Leeds United and Fulham at Elland Road on December 13, 2014 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)
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Leeds United may be making a push to return to the Premier League, but they’ll have to do so without their owner.

Massimo Cellino, who took over Leeds in February of 2014, has been banned for 18 months by the English FA for his involvement in the sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham later that summer. He was also fined $315,000 and required to complete a course outlining the duties and restrictions for owners in the English league.

During McCormack’s sale, a significant payment was apparently paid to unlicensed agent Barry Hughes, facilitated by McCormack’s official licensed agent Derek Day, who was also banned for 18 months, although 11 of those are suspended, leaving him sidelined for seven months should no other infractions arise.

This likely will only serve to accelerate the current potential sale of Leeds to Andrea Radrizzani, with both sides having publicly acknowledged discussions are ongoing.

Leeds is currently in fourth in the Championship table, having won five of their last six matches. McCormack, meanwhile, scoring a whopping 42 goals in 100 appearances over two years before making a big-money move to Aston Villa this past summer, where he has slumped at Villa Park, owning just two goals over 13 Championship appearances this season and losing his place in the team. To be fair, he struggled in his early days at Fulham as well, scoring just twice in his first 15 matches before exploding in his second season at Craven Cottage with 21 league goals.

Europa League roundup: Manchester United through, Southampton bounced

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 08:  Josh Sims of Southampton is chased by Shir Tzedek of Hapoel Be'er Sheva during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and Hapoel Be'er-Sheva FC at St Mary's Stadium on December 8, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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The Europa League group stage finished up Thursday and a pair of Premier League teams are through, along with other big-name clubs.

Manchester United secured its spot in the knockout stage by beating Ukranian side Zorya 2-0 on goals from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Paul Pogba looked incisive as well, feeding Zlatan on the second goal. They finish second in Group A after Fenerbahce beat Feyenoord on a wonderful overhead kick from bike specialist Moussa Sow, giving the Turkish club the group’s top spot.

Southampton, however, suffered a double blow as they needed a win or a 0-0 draw against Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva, but were dumped from the competition with a wild 1-1 draw after Maor Bar Buzaglo scored with 11 minutes remaining to send the Israeli club through. In addition, the Saints may have lost striker Charlie Austin for some time after he went down with what looked to be a dislocated shoulder, as trainers appeared to pop it back in as Austin lay on the pitch, before he came off in clear pain.

[ RECAP: Southampton dumped out of Europa League with draw ]

Group B finished with a tight margin. Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia defeated bigger brothers Olympiacos 2-0 with one early and one late. That sent Apoel clean through at the top of the club, while the Greeks took second. Olympiacos finished level with Young Boys on eight points, but the Greek club went through thanks to a win and a draw against their Swiss groupmates.

Group C ended even tighter as St. Etienne completed a stunning comeback, down 2-0 in the first half on the road at Anderlecht before coming from behind to win 3-2 with all three goals coming in a 12-minute span in the second half. That gave the French side the group win with 12 points, while the Belgians came in second with 11. FC Mainz won 2-0 over Qabala but finished third with nine points.

AZ Alkmaar’s wire to wire 3-2 win over Group D winners Zenit St. Petersburg saw them advance despite Maccabi Tel Aviv’s victory, while Celta Vigo overtook Standard Liege to move on through Group G thanks to a 2-0 win over Panathanaikos. The Spaniards came into the day tied with Standard Liege on points, and the three points saw them through, while the Belgians were bounced after managing just a draw against group leaders Ajax.

Group F is the only question mark, as Genk and Sassuolo were meant to play, but the match was postponed due to signifncant fog cutting sight to essentially nothing at Mapei Stadium in Italy. Athletic Bilbao, meanwhile, sits atop the group, but a 1-1 draw Thursday with Rapid Wien means Genk is still able to take over the top spot from the Spaniards with a draw or win.

Red Bull Salzburg caught FC Krasnodar on points thanks to a win over group leaders Schalke plus a Krasnodar loss to Nice, but it wasn’t enough thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker, so Schalke and Krasnodar move through in Group I.

Finally, Villarreal secured a place in the knockout stages thanks to a late 2-1 win over 10-man Steaua Bucharesti. Manu Trigueros scored the winner in the 88th minute, pushing them clean into second behind Turkish club Osmanlispor who won the group with a 2-0 win over FC Zurich thanks to two late goals.

SCORELINES

Zorya 0-2 Manchester United
Southampton 1-1 Hapoel Be’er Sheva
Feyenoord 0-1 Fenerbahce
Astra Giurgiu 0-0 Roma
AZ Alkmaar 3-2 Zenit St. Petersburg
Standard Liege 1-1 Ajax
Inter Milan 2-1 Sparta Prague
Red Bull Salzburg 2-0 Schalke
Villareal 2-1 Steaua Bucharesti
Qarabag 1-2 Fiorentina
Sporting Braga 2-4 Shakhtar Donetsk
Anderlecht 2-3 Saint Etienne
Mainz 2-0 Gabala
Panathinaikos 0-2 Celta Vigo
Viktoria Plzen 3-2 Austria Wien
Konyaspor 0-1 Gent
PAOK 2-0 Liberec
Apoel Nicosia 2-0 Olympiacos
Young Boys 3-0 Astana
Osmanlispor 2-0 FC Zurich
Nice 2-1 Krasnodar
Sassuolo vs. Genk (postponed until Friday)

The draw for the Round of 32 will take place on Monday, December 12th.

ROUND OF 32:

Group winners: Fenerbahce, Apoel Nicosia, St. Etienne, Zenit St. Petersburg, Roma, Athletic Bilbao/Genk, Ajax, Shakhtar Donetsk, Schalke, Fiorentina, Sparta Prague, Osmanlispor.

Runners Up: Manchester United, Olympiacos, Anderlecht, Anderlecht, Astra Giurgiu, Athletic Bilbao/Genk, Celta Vigo, KAA Gent, Krasnodar, PAOK, Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Villareal.

Dropping down from Champions League: Ludogorets, Besiktas, Borussia Monchengladbach, FC Rostov, Tottenham Hotspur, Legia Warsaw, FC Copenhagen, Lyon.