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.

Giuseppe Rossi signs with Real Salt Lake

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Former Manchester United, Villareal, and Fiorentina forward Guiseppe Rossi has signed with MLS side Real Salt Lake in yet another bid to revive his injury-plagued career.

Rossi, a New Jersey-born striker who infamously chose to represent Italy at the international level, has struggled mightily for game time over the past few years thanks to a string of bad injury luck. He most recently made 9 Serie A appearances for Genoa through the latter half of the 2017/18 season, without a competitive match since May 20, 2018.

“For me, MLS has been growing every year and has produced an exciting product,” Rossi said upon signing. “I’m lucky enough to have RSL be my first contact in the league during this process. The club’s respect and kindness towards me is something I appreciate immensely. I can’t wait to see and meet the fans and immerse myself in the RSL culture. Along with the rest of the team, I can’t wait to begin this season and enjoy the journey together.”

The 33-year-old has suffered five major knee injuries throughout his career, including three ACL tears. According to the soccer database Transfermarkt, Rossi has missed upwards of 1,200 days due to injuries throughout his career.

The signing represents an exciting moment for Rossi, who despite his struggles is thought to be a supremely talented player when healthy. No matter how this tenure goes, Rossi’s chance to play back in the United States marks a significant transition for a player who has had a contentious relationship with USMNT fans due to his national team decision. While it’s not as exciting a signing as it would have been 5-7 years ago, Rossi’s return to his home nation is a move with plenty of upside.

Through his European career, Rossi racked up 170 La Liga appearances, 62 in Serie A, 16 in the Premier League, and 12 in Champions League play. Rossi has 29 caps for the Italian national team, scoring seven goals including two against the United States in a 2009 Confederations Cup match.

Real Salt Lake starts its 2020 season against Orlando City on Saturday.

Solskjaer unsure on Martial return as United injury situation worsens

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Manchester United is already missing Marcus Rashford for potentially the rest of the season, and now another Red Devils forward is facing a longer than expected road back as well.

Just as he was rounding back into form, Anthony Martial will be sidelined for an unknown amount of time thanks to a thigh injury suffered in training on Wednesday. Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said he’s unsure how long Martial will be out, but muscle injuries don’t just go away in a jiffy.

“I don’t know,” Solskjaer said after Manchester United defeated Club Brugge 5-0 to advance in Europa League play. “He went off during training. He tried to be fit for today, it’s not his hamstring, it’s his thigh and in and around the knee. I don’t know.”

Solskjaer’s mention of the hamstring is notable as Martial missed over a month through September with a hamstring problem.

The Red Devils brought aboard Odion Ighalo in January to cover for Rashford’s injury, and Martial has been a critical figure of the Manchester United attack, starting nearly every game since returning from his hamstring troubles in early October. Since his double on Boxing Day, Martial has scored six Premier League goals plus another in the FA Cup and one in Europa League play coming in the first leg of the Club Brugge matchup.

Manchester United’s upcoming fixtures see them take on Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday, with an FA Cup visit to Derby County next week.

Europa League: Man United through, Arsenal shockingly out

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Wolves advanced in Europa League play earlier Thursday comfortably, and while Manchester United also moved on with ease, Arsenal crashed out in painful fashion.

Bruno Fernandes was a menace as Manchester United rolled over 10-man Club Brugge 5-0 at Old Trafford. He struck the post just minutes in before forcing a bigtime save from Simon Mignolet. Fernandes eventually put Manchester United up from the penalty spot just before the half-hour mark, giving the Red Devils the opener after Simon Deli was sent off for clearly handling the ball in the box.

With the man advantage, Manchester United ran ragged, with Odion Ighalo scoring his debut Red Devils goal and Scott McTominay also finding the back of the net in his full return to the squad from injury. The second half was a breeze, with Manchester United hold Club Brugge without a shot on target, while the Red Devils popped off 18 shots with eight of them on frame. Fred tacked on a pair in the final 10 minutes to complete the scoreline.

[ MORE: Early games see Wolves, Bayer advance among others ]

Arsenal appeared to be stumbling towards penalties at the Emirates as they took on Olympiakos. Then they were rescued by a moment of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang magic. Then they were out.

After the Gunners won 1-0 in Greece, the return leg at the Emirates was a slog, with Arsenal falling in regulation 1-0 on a 58th minute Pape Abou Cisse header. That sent the match to extra time where it seemed penalties were imminent after Olympiakos substitute Georgios Masouras hit the crossbar. With just seven minutes to go, Aubameyang produced a bicycle kick to put the Gunners in front.

But just minutes later, Olympiakos leveled the aggregate scoreline with a Youssef El Arabi header in the 119th minute. Aubameyang had another chance to win it for the Gunners, but he couldn’t finish right on the doorstep at the buzzer and Arsenal crashed out of the competition.

In an empty stadium, Inter started sluggish but came back to advance past Ludogorets Razgrad 4-1 on aggregate thanks to a 2-1 victory at the San Siro. Brazilian winger Cauly opened the scoring for Ludogorets to get Inter close on aggregate, but an own goal brought Inter back level and Romelu Lukaku put the Italians in front before halftime to put them out of reach. Lukaku’s strike was a wild header that he worked while laying prone in front of Ludogorets goalkeeper Plamen Iliev.

Ajax’s disappointment continued as last year’s Champions League semifinalists dumped out of Europe via a 3-1 aggregate defeat to Getafe. After a 2-0 first-leg loss, Jamie Mata piled on the Dutch side’s woes with a fifth-minute opener. Danilo got Ajax on the board to level things up minutes later and Carel Etling doubled Ajax’s total to put them 2-1 up and within one on aggregate, but it wasn’t enough. Ajax had 71% possession but could only manage three shots on target, while the two teams racked up nine yellow cards.

Celtic failed to hold serve at home as it crashed out of European competition on a roller coaster 3-1 loss to FC Copenhagen. The visitors scored the opener on a hilarious defensive fail by Celtic five minutes after halftime.

Celtic seemed to have rescued the match as Odsonne Edouard struck in the 83rd minute, but Copenhagen bounced straight back as Pep Biel and Dame N'Doye stunned the Dublin crowd to send Celtic crashing out of Europe.

Shakhtar Donetsk advanced past Benfica in a wild 3-3 draw that saw the Ukranians move on via a 5-4 aggregate victory. Both teams held leads at various stages, but with Shakhtar trailing 2-1 shortly after halftime, Taras Stepanenko and Alan Patrick found the back of the net to put Shakhtar up for good. Benfica’s elimination seals the fate for all three Portuguese sides in the competition after both Sporting CP and Porto were bounced in the early kicks.

Sevilla labored to a 0-0 draw with Romanian side CFR Cluj, with the Spaniard advancing on away goals after a 1-1 aggregate draw. The two teams ripped off a combined 34 shots but neither found the back of the net. Sevilla racked up 2.17 xG, so elimination was not harsh on the Romanians.

The Round of 16 draw will be held at 7:00 a.m. ET tomorrow morning.

Europa League results (bolded team advances)

Arsenal 2-2 Olympiacos (AET)
Manchester United 5-0 Club Brugge
Inter Milan 2-1 Ludogorets
Benfica 3-3 Shakhtar Donetsk
Ajax 2-1 Getafe
Celtic 0-1 FC Copenhagen
Sevilla 0-0 CFR Cluj

Europa League: Wolves through to Round of 16, Portuguese sides stunned

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Arsenal and Manchester United are still set to take the field, but there was an early round of Europa League matches that saw nearly half the Round of 16 field set.

Wolverhampton Wanderers knew it had room to breathe, and they made use of that, advancing cooly to the Round of 16 despite a 3-2 loss at Espanyol that saw them advance 6-3 on aggregate. The 4-0 first-leg win set Wolves up nicely, and they held firm behind equalizers from red-hot winger Adama Traore and Matthew Doherty.

 

Jonathan Calleri picked up a hat-trick for the hosts, including the winner in the 91st minute, but it wasn’t nearly enough to see the Spanish side truly challenge the massive deficit.

Elsewhere, Justin Kluivert gave Roma a spot in the Round of 16 with his 29th minute goal that saw the Italian side through via a 2-1 aggregate win over KAA Gent. The 20-year-old got a sumptuous through ball from Henrikh Mkhitaryan who laid it on a platter for Kluivert’s calm finish. The goal answered Jonathan David’s opener four minutes prior and set Roma up for a 1-1 draw that followed their 1-0 home win in the first leg.

USMNT veteran John Brooks started and played the whole 90 minutes as Wolfsburg rode a 3-0 second leg win to a 5-1 aggregate victory over Norwegian side Malmo. 21-year-old Croatian youth international Josip Brekalo was the lone goalscorer in the second leg, finding the net just minutes before halftime to seal advancement to the next round. Yannick Gerhardt and Joao Victor added second-half cherries on top with his 65th minute to put Wolfsburg into the next stage.

Bayer Leverkusen passed a tough test with a 3-1 aggregate victory over Champions League dropouts FC Porto. After a 2-1 home win in the first leg, the German side got an early 10th minute goal from Argentine international Lucas Alario, initially flagged for offside but corrected by VAR. Porto was awful, managing just one shot through the entire first half and conceding twice more after halftime to Kai Havertz and Kerem Demirbay. Mali international Moussa Marega got 65th minute goal for Porto but it was little more than a consolation.

The other Portuguese club in the competition, Sporting CP, suffered an equally disappointing result as they coughed up a 3-1 first-leg lead and to Istanbul Basaksehir in Turkey, falling 4-1 in extra time to complete a 5-4 aggregate defeat. After the hosts brought the aggregate back level, it seemed Luciano Vietto had saved Sporting’s lives, but Edin Visca scored in the 92nd minute to send the match to extra time on a 4-4 aggregate draw. Visca then played hero as he blasted a wonderful penalty in the 119th minute to win the matchup.

Former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel scored the opener just after the half-hour mark via a corner, nutmegging the goalkeeper with a header on the doorstep. Danijel Aleksic bagged Basaksehir’s second just before halftime with an absolutely incredible free-kick from miles away to put the hosts 2-0 up and level the aggregate at 3-3, with Basaksehir holding the away goal advantage from the first leg. Sporting CP was saved, however, by Vietto who scored with 22 minutes remaining 

Dutch side AZ Alkmaar slumped out of the competition to LASK, losing 2-0 in Austria which sealed a 3-1 aggregate defeat. 21-year-old Austrian youth international Marko Raguz hit for a quickfire double just before halftime, including one from the penalty spot, to send LASK through to the Round of 16.

Full Europa League results (bolded team advances)

Espanyol 3-2 Wolverhampton Wanderers
FC Porto 1-3 Bayer Leverkusen
KAA Gent 1-1 AS Roma
Malmo FF 0-3 Wolfsburg
LASK 2-0 AZ Alkmaar
Istanbul Basaksehir 4-1 Sporting CP (AET)
FC Basel 1-0 Apoel Nicosia