One of the most thrilling and consequential transfer sagas in the history of soccer reached its conclusion on Thursday, when Barcelona confirmed that it had received 222 million euros, triggering the release clause in Neymar da Silva Santos Jr.’s contract and paving the way for the Brazilian star to join to PSG.
The Parisian giants officially announced the move later in the day, making Neymar the most expensive player ever by a wide margin. They’ll soon unveil him to their fans, and then they’ll get down to business.
But the most compelling business decisions now must be made by Barcelona. The world’s most expensive player is gone, which means the search for the world’s most expensive player’s successor(s) is underway.
In fact, given the protracted nature of the negotiations and the long-held knowledge of what the fee would eventually be, Barcelona’s quest to replace Neymar has probably been ongoing for some time now. And it’s a good thing it has been, because Neymar’s departure has left the Catalonian club with a nearly unanswerable question: How do you replace a player who is widely believed to be the third best attacking player in the world? And how do you do so when Nos. 1 and 4 on that list are already in your possession, and No. 2 is most certainly unavailable?
Again, the question is unanswerable. There is no one player who can provide Barcelona with what Neymar took with him to PSG. So the La Liga side must get creative. Fortunately, they have hundreds of millions of euros to get creative with.
There are several ways to approach the dilemma. One is to search for a like-for-like replacement, even if that search will inevitably settle for a lesser player. Another is to accept a steep downgrade on the left wing and strengthen at other positions. Yet another would be to gamble on one or multiple youngsters who could eventually grow into Neymar’s heir.
Barcelona has the money to pursue more than one of those plans, or to find fertile middle ground between all of them. Competitors know that, and will force Barca to overpay, but the spending power will be enough to procure top players from top clubs. So which top players should Barcelona pursue?
Here are 20 options, divided into three categories: the established stars, the starlets, and some lesser talents who could be brought in for depth along with one or two players from the former two categories.
Philippe Coutinho, 25, Liverpool
Neymar’s compatriot has been linked with a move to the Camp Nou all summer, and the Brazilian winger’s departure should only amplify those rumors. Coutinho is far from a like-for-like replacement; he’s more comfortable playing centrally, and more agile than fast. But he can play wide left, would grant new manager Ernesto Valverde some flexibility, and would seemingly harmonize well with Barcelona’s style.
The main issue: Liverpool appear set to play hardball, and could try to drive his price up into the region of 100 million pounds, which is excessive even for a player of his quality.
Eden Hazard, 26, Chelsea
There is little reason to think Hazard will leave Chelsea. He excelled last season as the Blues won the Premier League, and he found an ever so-suitable-home in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3. There have been few, if any, rumblings about a departure.
But Barcelona would be foolish to not explore the possibility. Hazard might come as close as anybody in the world to emulating Neymar’s skill set. He can play on the break or in tight spaces, as a true winger or with freedom, and would keep Barcelona’s front three atop world soccer. He’d probably cost more than half the Neymar fee, and Chelsea has no motivation to sell, but Barcelona should make a push.
Alexis Sanchez, 28, Arsenal
When Sanchez left Barcelona for London in 2014, he didn’t do so on perfect terms. But the nature of his exit wasn’t anything that, three years later, would preclude a move back to Spain. He’s improved as a player in those three years under Arsene Wenger, and he might be the closest like-for-like Neymar replacement out there — after all, there’s a reason Barcelona bought him back in 2011 in the first place.
Furthering the case for a Barcelona return is that Sanchez looks likely to leave Arsenal sometime in the next 12 months, either for a fee this summer or on a free when his contract expires next summer. The contract situation will deflate his price, so Barcelona could conceivably bring him back for less than a third of Neymar’s price. That would allow the club to sink money into a central midfielder and other reinforcements. Sanchez should be high on Barca’s shopping list.
Paulo Dybala, 23, Juventus
The Argentinean is more second striker than winger, but he’s a wonderful talent, and would give Barcelona a lot of interchangeability across its front line. However, it would take a lot to pry him away from the Italian champions — and that’s provided Dybala would want to leave, which he might not.
Antoine Griezmann, 26, Atlético Madrid
Griezmann was the hottest name on the market in May and early June before the French forward announced he would be staying at Atlético. His release clause is reportedly 200 million euros. If Barcelona considers a move for Griezmann, it would almost surely be next summer, not right now.
Angel Di Maria, 29, Paris Saint-Germain
Di Maria has been the subject of rumors, and he has likely become surplus at PSG, but those are the only two reasons he’s on this list. His age should eliminate him from consideration. Plus, he doesn’t fit Barcelona’s style.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, 28, Borussia Dortmund
There have been Aubameyang-related rumblings intermittently throughout the summer, and it’s not inconceivable that he’d thrive at Barcelona. He has essentially played (and risen to prominence) as a lone striker at Dortmund, but he has played on the wing, where his pace is similarly deadly. He could take Neymar’s place wide left, or partner Suarez up top with Messi roaming sideline to sideline in behind. It’s unlikely, but a move for Aubameyang might make more sense than you initially think.
Kevin De Bruyne, 26, Manchester City
De Bruyne wouldn’t really be a Neymar replacement, and there have been no rumors whatsoever tying the Belgian attacking midfielder to Barcelona, but he could give the La Liga runner-up some attacking punch to compensate for Neymar’s exit. That said, he’d be very pricey, and there’s a reason there haven’t even been any whispers.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Ousmane Dembele, 20, Borussia Dortmund
The player most likely to move from Dortmund to Barcelona isn’t Aubameyang; it’s Dembele. The French winger has been heavily linked with a move to Spain ever since Neymar edged toward Paris, and he might be the most realistic possibility of anyone on this list.
Dembele can match Neymar in some areas. He has the pace and the north-south dribbling ability. But he can’t yet emulate Neymar’s 1-v-1 ability in tight spaces, and has a long way to go if he is to become the goal threat Neymar is. If the Catalans buy Dembele and draft him into the first-choice XI immediately, they’ll lose a lot of productivity in the short term.
Kylian Mbappe, 18, Monaco
Mbappe exploded onto the scene as a striker in a front two this past season at Monaco. It’s unclear how he’d fit at Barcelona. And with Real Madrid bidding as well, the price could approach the Neymar fee, which would be absurd. But Mbappe’s breakout season as an 18-year-old, both in Ligue 1 and during Monaco’s surprise run to the Champions League semifinals, made these links inevitable.
Thomas Lemar, 21, Monaco
One of Monaco’s many other young stars would be a more natural Neymar replacement on the wing. His primary home for the French champions was on the left in a 4-2-2, and he totaled 14 goals across all competitions as a 21-year-old. Mbappe is getting all the buzz, but given the price it’d take to get him, Barcelona would be wiser to spend that money to lure both Lemar and a more established player.
Gelson Martins, 22, Sporting
Martins, a skillful Portuguese winger, has been linked with Barcelona in the past. But the links aren’t strong, and he probably isn’t a big enough name.
Christian Pulisic, 18, Borussia Dortmund
You know who is a big name? Or will be after he stars for the United States at the World Cup as a teenager? Pulisic. He’s one of the finest young talents in the world, he has reportedly caught Barcelona’s eye in the past, and oh my goodness would he sell a lot of shirts in the U.S. That’s not why Barca would buy him, of course, but it wouldn’t hurt.
Dele Alli, 21, Tottenham
He doesn’t seem like the Barcelona type, and he’s not a winger. But hey, “Lionel Messi tells Barcelona to bin Philippe Coutinho and sign Dele Alli – report” is a real headline, albeit on a probably totally bogus story. So we felt like we had to include Alli here. But he is almost certainly not going to Barcelona.
Keita Baldé Diao, 22, Lazio
A former La Masia youngster coming off a 16-goal season in Serie A, with his contract set to expire next summer? Surely on Barcelona’s wish list, right?
Well, er, maybe not. From an ESPN story a few months ago:
He was considered a top prospect at Barcelona’s La Masia academy, nicknamed Keitinha and Maravilla, but someone at the club decided to punish him for putting ice into his teammate’s bed as a practical joke. Keita was sent away to tiny Cornella at the age of 15, scored tons of goals, and Barca wanted to sign him back a year later. They were astounded to hear that the player refused. He felt mistreated and chose not to return.
THE SECOND TIER TARGETS
Dries Mertens, 30, Napoli
Mertens, in his age 29 season, scored a whopping 34 goals last season in 45 appearances for Napoli. However, that total equaled his goal tally from the past three seasons combined, which has “one-hit wonder” written all over it. In reality, Mertens’ 2016-17 season is somewhere in between fluke and breakout, but he’s now 30, and doesn’t really fit the profile of a player that Barcelona needs.
Yannick Carrasco, 23, Atlético Madrid
Barcelona was reportedly keen on Carrasco last fall, but there haven’t been many whispers since. And Atlético would likely be hesitant to sell, especially after locking Carrasco into a new long-term contract through 2022 last October.
Luan, 24, Gremio
Barcelona was heavily linked to the Brazilian forward last summer, and he could be a nice cut-price, under-the-radar target to take a flier on.
Felipe Anderson, 24, Lazio
Anderson is a former top prospect who was reportedly on Barcelona’s radar two or three years ago, but he hasn’t really progressed. Perhaps Barca would gamble that it could surround him with better players, move him out wide left, and coax more talent out of him?
Domenico Berardi, 23, Sassuolo
Berardi has been linked with Barcelona (and other top European clubs) in the past, could play anywhere across an attacking three, and still has potential to grow. He wouldn’t cost a fortune, and is one of the more unheralded players on this list. His next move likely won’t be to a club of Barcelona’s stature, but if the Catalonian club is looking for a versatile, second-choice forward who could develop into something more, maybe he’s worth a shot?
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• Neymar bids goodbye to Barcelona, Messi on social media