May 26, 2013, 7:54 PM EDT
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.
Apr 20, 2014, 4:57 AM EDT
Liverpool can go five clear before David Moyes makes his return to Goodison Park.
Apr 20, 2014, 3:53 AM EDT
Dallas stayed at the top of the Western Conference, while Seattle improved to 3-0-1 on the road.
Apr 20, 2014, 2:39 AM EDT
Seattle’s high-priced strike tandem produced another late winner, giving the Sounders their fourth win of the season.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:51 AM EDT
Two huge saves in the final minutes from Nick Rimando keep RSL unbeaten.
Apr 20, 2014, 1:05 AM EDT
Goal difference has the defending champions on top of the Eastern Conference.
Apr 20, 2014, 12:35 AM EDT
Two more goals off set pieces gave FC Dallas its fifth win of the season.
Apr 19, 2014, 10:55 PM EDT
Juan Guzman gave Giancarlo Gonzalez a pass. Columbus came back to claim a draw.
Apr 19, 2014, 10:11 PM EDT
Two separate leads were pulled back as the Whitecaps fought back at BC Place.
Apr 19, 2014, 9:24 PM EDT
NBC’s team on the scene reacts to the day’s big result:
Apr 19, 2014, 8:49 PM EDT
San Jose remains without a win beside playing the second place Rapids to a standstill.
Apr 19, 2014, 7:43 PM EDT
Look back at a Saturday that helped bring clarity to the Premier League’s title race.
Apr 19, 2014, 7:07 PM EDT
Two weeks ago, it was Mike Magee. On Saturday, it was Juan Luis Anagonó who couldn’t covert late from the spot.
Apr 19, 2014, 6:29 PM EDT
Will Bruin and Andrew Wenger came close, but neither were able to keep his team from playing out a scoreless draw.
Apr 19, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT
A host of teams are battling it out to determine who will fill Germany’s European spots. Meanwhile, the rush to avoid the drop continues.
Apr 19, 2014, 3:38 PM EDT
Chicago goes for its first win while New England looks to make it two-in-a-row, and it all starts at 4:00 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports Live Extra:
Apr 19, 2014, 3:20 PM EDT
All the recaps, analysis and video highlights from a sensational Saturday:
Apr 19, 2014, 2:56 PM EDT
Watch Chelsea’s manager implode in the post-match TV interview, as his unbeaten streak comes to an end:
Apr 19, 2014, 2:52 PM EDT
Lazio, Torino and Parma all dropped points, opening a path for AC Milan to push into Italy’s final Europa League spot.
Apr 19, 2014, 2:32 PM EDT
Chelsea lose at home in PL under Mourinho for first time in 77 matches, as Sunderland shock Blues:
Apr 19, 2014, 1:26 PM EDT
Blues and Black Cats locked at 1-1 after nervy first half, watch live online right here:
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