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.

Fortunes up or down? 32 thoughts after first 17 World Cup games

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All it took was one round of games for some favorites to be doubted, others to verify their status, and some underdogs to earn dark horse status.

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While there are valid reasons to make early judgments, it’s important to note that some perceived setbacks don’t change much while others put a serious crimp in tournament hopes.

Group A

Russia (2 games played) — Fortunes way up — Two resounding wins combined with early tumult in Group B could help Russia consider a quarterfinal spot.

Uruguay — Fortunes level — Jose Gimenez’s 89th minute winner may allow the CONMEBOL side to render its group finale moot by hammering Saudi Arabia.

Egypt (2 games played) — Fortunes way down — Could be out of the tournament should Uruguay get a point against lowly Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia — Fortunes down — Unsure anyone figured the Green Falcons as anything other than an obstacle, but their performance against host Russia was miserable.

Group B

Iran — Fortunes up — Carlos Queiroz would’ve circled the Morocco opener as a must-win. Mission accomplished, however it was done.

Portugal — Fortunes level — Needed a PK, goalie error, and wonder free kick to get a point from Spain. Still, got the point.

Spain — Fortunes down — Still look capable of imposing themselves on the tournament, but too many errors in their first outing.

Morocco — Fortunes down — Probably should’ve had a point against Iran, but would’ve wanted three anyway. Very disappointing and now a mountain ahead.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – JUNE 15: Karim Ansarifard of Iran is challenged by Noureddine Amrabat of Morocco (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Group C

France — Fortunes level — Clearly the better side against Australia, didn’t inspire title confidence but could’ve easily nabbed a three- or four-goal win.

Denmark — Fortunes up — Despite being the second-best side against Peru, now can expect the knockout rounds by beating the Socceroos.

Australia — Fortunes down — France first was always going to be a struggle, but to fight so valiantly and fall to an own goal will be a mental hurdle ahead of Peru.

Peru — Fortunes down — Terrific energy and performance would’ve led to a win with any finishing luck, but getting a result from Denmark was very important. A loss presents a major challenge.

Group D

Croatia — Fortunes up — Its tactical options for the second match against Argentina are wide open after securing three points against Nigeria.

Argentina — Fortunes down — Forget control of the game and Lionel Messi’s 11 shots on target; Not getting full points against Iceland is a significant setback. A group stage without Messi is possible.

Iceland — Fortunes up — It remains hard to picture Iceland getting out of the group, but the UEFA side has now flummoxed Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in successive tournaments. Can they find a win against Nigeria to set up a wild final day?

Nigeria — Fortunes down — Group D was always going to be tough, but a 2-0 loss to Croatia means the margin of error is almost zero.

Group E

Serbia — Fortunes up — Forget how Serbia won, their fortunes have leapt due to Brazil drawing Switzerland.

Brazil — Fortunes down — Drawing their second-trickiest game could see Neymar and Co. in position to finish second in the group instead of first. The only silver lining is that Germany may also fail to claim its group and make runner-up a good thing for the Round of 16.

Switzerland — Fortunes up — Maybe Swiss supporters were expecting it, but a result against Brazil is a positive step for a team that took Argentina to extra time at the 2014 tournament but underwhelmed at EURO 2016.

Costa Rica — Fortunes down — Now needs to beat Brazil to have much hope of anything going into the final group match vs. Switzerland.

Group F

Sweden  — Fortunes level — Beating South Korea was nice and we understand the chemistry argument, but a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic would’ve feasted on the spoils offered in the opener.

Mexico  — Fortunes way up — El Tri is a very good tournament team, but if you had them beating Germany 1-0 in the opener you’re a better prognosticator than me.

Germany  — Fortunes down — Still favored to come out of the group and deep enough to repeat as champions, being unable to get a result from Mexico will only raise more questions about leaving Leroy Sane home (fair or not).

South Korea — Fortunes down — Would’ve wanted no less than four points from the Sweden and Mexico encounters, and has zero heading into the second against El Tri.

NIZHNIY NOVGOROD, RUSSIA – JUNE 18: Andreas Granqvist of Sweden. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Group G

Belgium  — Fortunes up — Delivered expected dominance against Panama and could have a spot in the knockout rounds sewn up by the end of Day Two versus Tunisia.

England  — Fortunes up — There will not be Wayne Rooney questions about this tournament’s captain, as Harry Kane scored twice on a day he perhaps wasn’t at his best. Will clinch a berth in the knockout rounds by beating Panama next, you’d have to think.

Tunisia  — Fortunes slightly down — Needed to surprise England or Belgium to get out of the group, and still has a second opportunity after losing late to the Three Lions.

Panama  — Fortunes slightly down — Not sure anyone was expecting a Cinderella story, but even those will feel it more unlikely after a big loss to Belgium.

Group H

Japan  — Fortunes up — Not a bad team at all, but prospects were dim given the talent of the group. After beating Colombia in match one, there’s a house money feel to this one.

Senegal  — Fortunes up — Controversy aside, the Lions of Teranga deserved all three points against Poland and are in pole position to win the group.

Poland  — Fortunes down — Disappointing is an understatement leading into a match versus Colombia which could leave both on the outskirts with a match to go.

Colombia  — Fortunes down — Carlos Sanchez’s third minute red card didn’t ultimately doom them, but the task is tall with equally desperate Poland up next.

Arsenal seals transfer of German goalkeeper Leno

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Arsenal unveiled German goalkeeper Bernd Leno on Tuesday as the latest member of Unai Emery’s unit.

The longtime Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper, 26, has six caps for Germany but is not on the World Cup roster.

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Leno had appeared in 304 matches for Bayer before the move, which will reportedly cost the Gunners approximately $25 million.

Head coach Unai Emery said: “We are very pleased that Bernd Leno will be joining us. Bernd is a goalkeeper of high quality and experience. He has been a top performer and regular number one goalkeeper with Leverkusen in the Bundesliga for the past seven years. We are all excited that Bernd has chosen Arsenal Football Club and look forward to start working with him in pre-season.”

The Gunners have Petr Cech and David Ospina at goalkeeper, but it’s reasonable to expect at least one to leave town. Emery has already added Stephan Lichtsteiner from Juventus to help shore up his defense.

Clinical Russia tops Egypt to (pretty much) reach knockout rounds

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  • Russia goals: Fathy o.g. (48′), Cheryshev (59′), Dzyuba (62′)
  • Egypt: Salah (PK, 73′)
  • Next: Russia-Uruguay, Egypt-Saudi Arabia

Hosts Russia scored a trio of second half goals to all but seal the first spot in the 2018 World Cup’s Round of 16 with a 3-1 win over Egypt on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg.

The loss means Egypt is 0-2, the Pharoahs unable to find momentum despite the return of Mohamed Salah. Egypt needs a wild combination of factors to stay alive for the knockout rounds, and is likely heading home.

Salah won and converted a penalty for Egypt, while Denis Cheryshev, Artem Dzyuba, and an Egyptian own goal accounted for Russia’s goals.

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Some sloppy play out of the back allowed Golovin a shot from outside the 18 but he hit his effort wide of the frame.

Egypt stayed in the mix though, and a Russian mistake  deep in its own end forced Zhirkov to concede a corner with a desperation intervention that stopped Mo Salah from a doorstep opportunity.

Salah then won a yard of space but fired wide in the 42nd minute after Zhirkov stopped him from going to his right peg.

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Russia went ahead through an Egypt own goal from Fathy, who was jostling for position with Artem Dzyuba and turned Roman Zobnin’s mishit inside his net.

After Cheryshev made it 2-0, Dzyuba took an Ilya Kutepov long ball out of the air with his chest before turning past Ahmed Hegazy and blasting Russia’s third goal home.

Salah won a penalty in the 73rd minute, one initially ruled a free kick, and the Liverpool man blasted his shot home.

Neymar limps out of Brazil training

AP Photo/Andre Penner
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Having drawn against Switzerland in its opener, Brazil now faces renewed concerns over the health of its megastar forward.

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Neymar’s right foot was “still not 100 percent” when he took the field for the 1-1 draw on Sunday, and the 26-year-old left practice early two days later.

He missed nearly three months after fracturing his foot for PSG under pressure by Marseille’s Dimitri Payet, but returned to score for Brazil in friendly defeats of Croatia and Austria. Neymar has 55 goals in 85 caps.

Neymar was favoring his right foot as he limped off the pitch, two days after being fouled 10 times against Switzerland. Fox reports that Neymar will be fine to practice on Wednesday, but the situation bears close observation.

Neymar was injured in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals when Juan Zuniga kneed him in the back.