From Paulo Dybala to Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard and La Masia, we take a look at the candidates to succeed Neymar in the Barcelona team.
It was a deal that seemed almost unthinkable barely a month ago, but it has happened at last: Neymar has joined Paris Saint-Germain for a scarcely conceivable world-record fee of €222-million.
The departure of the 25-year-old is a huge slap in the face to Barca from a pride perspective, but more pressing now is the need to find a way to replace one-third of their formidable ‘MSN’ strike force.
Of course, a windfall of nearly a quarter of a billion euros should provide ample funds for Ernesto Valverde to go shopping, and several names have already been suggested.
But where should Barca go looking for their new Neymar? We examine the leading candidates to fill the boots of the world’s most expensive player…
Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
Although few people outside Pep Guardiola’s coaching staff can quite understand why, it looks as though Sergio Aguero is surplus to requirements at Manchester City.
The striker scored 33 times in all competitions last season, but failed to convince his manager he can adapt to his style, and he only won his place back in the team from Gabriel Jesus when the Brazilian suffered a broken foot.
Guardiola and City have stated publicly they do not want to sell, but a sizeable bid from Barca will likely make them reconsider, especially given City’s recent spending. Lionel Messi would love one of his best friends at the club, too.
It would require a slight reshuffle of Barca’s attack to accommodate Aguero and Luis Suarez, but Valverde has set up with two strikers in the past.
Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool)
It’s a rumour that simply will not go away, however much Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp tells anyone who will listen that Philippe Coutinho will not be sold.
The player himself has stated he is in no rush to quit Anfield, and Neymar’s departure has ironically made matters more difficult, with Barca reportedly hoping to use the Brazil duo’s friendship as a bargaining chip.
Nevertheless, the lure of La Liga’s big guns is always strong for South American stars, and an offer approaching the nine-figure mark might convince Liverpool to cash in.
There is no doubt that Coutinho would make a shrewd, if expensive, investment: he would have no problem slotting into the 4-3-3 set-up and would bring the kind of excitement on the ball that made Neymar such a Camp Nou favourite.
Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
Eden Hazard is rumoured to be a long-term target for Real Madrid, and the Belgium international, while excelling at Chelsea either side of a poor 2015-16 campaign, has done little in the past to dissuade alleged interest from the Santiago Bernabeu.
Reports emerged this week that Barca could attempt to steal a march on their rivals and attempt to lure the 26-year-old away from Stamford Bridge.
It remains to be seen how Hazard would fit into the front three at Camp Nou, with the potential for the former Lille man, whose preference is to start out wide and drift inside, to tread on Messi’s playmaking toes.
Angel Di Maria (PSG)
Having struggled in the first half of last season under Unai Emery, Angel Di Maria began to recapture something like his best form to help PSG claim a domestic cup double last season.
Despite that, the Argentine has found himself linked with a move away, with Inter touted as the most likely destination, but Neymar’s departure could prompt Barca into making a move.
It would certainly be a gamble. Di Maria has never quite hit the heights he managed at Real Madrid in his spells with PSG and Manchester United, and his past connection to Barca’s great rivals would cause some hesitation over a deal.
But if Barca can use Neymar to negotiate a reduced price for the 29-year-old, it could be a risk worth taking.
Ousmane Dembele (Borussia Dortmund)
A sparkling talent who lit up the Bundesliga in his first season in Germany, Ousmane Dembele has regularly been linked with a move to Barca in the last few months.
The 20-year-old would only cost a small amount of the €222m at Barca’s disposal, and a season spent in a hugely attack-minded set-up suggests he would have few problems adapting to life in La Liga.
Dortmund have declared their transfer window ‘closed’, but it’s difficult to see Barca not trying to test their resolve with a talent such as Dembele at stake.
Paulo Dybala (Juventus)
The favoured choice of Messi (according to reports), Paulo Dybala was tipped to make a future move to Barca long before the Neymar saga kicked into gear.
The Argentina international scored twice against the Catalans in Juventus’ Champions League quarter-final win last term, and his development into a world-leading player has continued at a pace.
It would take a massive offer to persuade Juve to sell, but Dybala could force their hand if he makes it clear Camp Nou is where he wants to play. His versatility would also allow him to slot into the Neymar role or adjust to a front-line reshuffle, with few difficulties.
Kylian Mbappe (Monaco)
It seems odd that Barca have been strangely quiet amid the never-ending speculation surrounding Kylian Mbappe’s future.
The Monaco sensation has been linked with practically every club in Europe who boast deep pockets, and the rumours have even caused Monaco to threaten to get Fifa involved amid accusations of tapping-up.
Being on the fringes of the Mbappe reports could work to Barca’s advantage. Approaching Monaco directly, rather than attempting to speak to the player and his entourage first, could be a key way to encourage the French champions to sell this year.
Mbappe could well cost north of €100m, but it would be an investment worth making for an 18-year-old who can play anywhere across the front line to devastating effect.
Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal)
There is no doubt Alexis Sanchez has become a better player since leaving Barcelona three years ago, and a return now would make sense for all concerned.
The Chile star would get the Champions League football he craves and be able to slot into the team without much fuss, while the rest of the squad would likely welcome a man who was a popular figure in the dressing room before he left for Arsenal.
Arsene Wenger has made it clear they do not want to sell, but the prospect of letting Sanchez join a team abroad, instead of a Premier League rival will have a certain appeal. What’s more, with his contract expiring in a year, the Gunners need to cash in now or risk losing him for nothing in 2018.
Gerard Deulofeu, Rafinha (Barcelona)
Of course, Valverde may decide he need look no further than the Barca dressing-room for the next Neymar.
Gerard Deulofeu was signed back from Everton for a comparatively miserly €12m, and there can be no doubt the Spain international has the wherewithal and the academy coaching to slot into the first team straightaway.
Rafinha, meanwhile, has impressed in the relatively few chances he has been given in the starting line-up, both in central midfield and in a wide forward role, although both players could underwhelm the Catalan giants’ fans if either is anointed as Neymar’s successor.
If the market proves unforgiving and Valverde sees no solution in the first-team squad, the time might be right to dip into the B team and find the next young talent ready to make the breakthrough.
Barca have already lost a gem to Monaco in Jordi Mboula, but there are others in Gerard Lopez’s squad who could be worth a gamble.
Striker Anthony Lozano is 24 and desperate to break into the first team sooner rather than later, while Moha Ezzerfani is a flamboyant 19-year-old who boasts the skillset to play down either flank in the attack.
There is also Palmeiras loanee Vitinho, a midfielder who can also operate on the wing, and named Neymar as his idol upon signing for the club.
– This story originally appeared on FourFourTwo.co.za
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