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.

VIDEO: Portugal lead Iran at HT; Spain 1-1 Morocco

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We’re through the first 45 minutes of Monday’s Group B finales at the 2018 World Cup, and things are happening. A quick rundown…

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos combined to commit a disastrous gaffe at midfield, resulting in a goal for Khalid Boutaib in the 14th minute. At this point, Spain would have finished second, behind Portugal, and headed to the far more difficult side of the knockout bracket.

Five minutes later, it was Iniesta who, with a little help from some slightly lesser geniuses, unlocked the Moroccan defense to set up Isco for an emphatic finish. La Furia Roja moved back to the top of the group, on goals scored.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

In the afternoon’s other game, Portugal and Iran appeared destined for a 0-0 scoreline at halftime, until Ricardo Quaresma unleashed a stunning, outside-of-the-foot curler from outside the box to beat the goalkeeper and put Portugal ahead — both on the day, and in the table. As things currently stand, Portugal would win the group and Spain would finish second.

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 4

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In the fourth episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, England players have been preparing for their next match in an unusual way, Argentina has a huge meltdown, and more.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

Click play on the video above to watch the fourth episode in full.

Atlanta leads way with six All-Star Fan XI selections

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It may be hard to believe with all the World Cup festivities going on, but the Major League Soccer season is nearly halfway over.

[ MORE: Toronto FC’s 2018 has been far from their cup-winning 2017 ]

And that means it’s almost All-Star time.

The MLS All-Stars will continue their recent tradition of facing a European superpower in August, with Juventus being welcomed to the United States in early August.

But, which players from MLS will we see in action?

Last season’s expansion sweetheart Atlanta United leads the way in the fan voting with six players from the Eastern Conference side voted into the Fan XI, including attackers Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe and Josef Martinez.

Goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defender/captain Michael Parkhurst also made the team from Atlanta.

In all, only five clubs were represented based on the Fan XI, with the LA Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Los Angeles FC’s Carlos Vela and Laurent Ciman, Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi and Portland Timbers star Diego Valeri each rounding out the squad.


Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United)

Defenders: Michael Parkhurst (Atlanta United), Laurent Ciman (Los Angeles Football Club), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Miguel Almirón (Atlanta United), Ezequiel Barco (Atlanta United), Darlington Nagbe (Atlanta United), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers)

Forwards: Josef Martínez (Atlanta United), Zlatan Ibrahimović (LA Galaxy), Carlos Vela (Los Angeles Football Club – EA SPORTS™ “More Than a Vote” Challenge)

Saudi Arabia steals late win over Egypt in Group A finale

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Saudi Arabia pulled off a late 2-1 win against Egypt on Monday in their Group A finale, as the two nations ended their 2018 World Cup run in the group stage.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Salem Al Sawsari scored in the fifth minute of second half stoppage time to give the Saudis a late winner in the match, as the attacker struck the post in the dying moments before the ball crossed the line.

The Pharaohs took the lead in the 22nd minute, after a tremendous run from Mohamed Salah and lob over the Saudi Arabia goalkeeper.

Salah has two goals at the World Cup for Egypt, who were already eliminated heading into Monday’s match.

Saudi Arabia was granted a chance to equalize prior to halftime, however, goalkeeper Essam El Hadary brilliantly stopped Hattan Bahebri’s penalty kick in the 41st minute to preserve the Egypt advantage.

El Hadary became the oldest player in World Cup history to appear in a match at the age of 45.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

The Egypt keeper wasn’t as lucky the second time around though, with Salmon Al Faraj converting a penalty kick in the 51st minute.

Saudi Arabia finishes group play in third place on three points, while Egypt goes winless in its three matches.