Thigh injury will likely sideline di María for rest of the World Cup; what are Argentina’s options?

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One of Argentina’s most important players will miss the final two games of the World Cup, but since his name isn’t Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, or Sergio Agüero, his contributions may be overlooked. Yet anybody who watched the UEFA Champions League final (or, any Real Madrid game over the last four years) knows the value of Ángel di María.

Within a talented Argentina team that often lacks flexibility, the winger/forward/midfielder’s presence may be even more valuable. His combination of talent, versatility, and relentless work makes Di María a player that would fit into any team in the world.

Unfortunately for the Albiceleste, over the final two rounds of this year’s World Cup, that team won’t be theirs. Having suffered a right thigh tear today against Belgium, the 26-year-old is expected to be ruled out of the semifinals and, if Argentina defeats the Netherlands, Brazil 2014’s final. An official announcement is expected on Sunday.

From reporting by The Guardian:

Di María suffered the tear when mustering a shot, which was blocked by Vincent Kompany, with his team leading 1-0 in Brasilia. He received treatment on the pitch and attempted to play on, but crumpled back to the turf moments later before hobbling away in tears … The Argentina manager, Alejandro Sabella, initially expressed hopes the injury would not prove too serious … However, the severity of the tear became clearer over the course of evening with media in Argentina reporting the Real Madrid player, who had scored the team’s late winner against Switzerland in the round of 16, was now resigned to missing the remainder of the finals.

With Argentina showing so many different looks this World Cup, it’s difficult to know how, exactly, this will affect Sabella’s team. Maybe that can turn into an advantage against the Dutch, who have tailored their set up for each opponent.

Without di María, Sabella could elect to put Agüero back in the team, switching back to 4-3-3 that worked before the tournament. But if di María’s not there to severe as the midfield’s linking element, Messi may be drawn further from goal. Perhaps Enzo Pérez could be that guy, but the Albiceleste may not have another central midfielder who can fill that role.

With that in mind, it makes more sense than ever to keep Agüero on the bench and simply replace di María with somebody who can play wider. That replacement could be Pérez, who came on against Belgium, or it could be veteran right-winger Maxi Rodríguez, if Sabella wants to tweak his team’s shape. Ricardo Álvarez and Rodrigo Palacio are other possibilities, but with the width the Netherlands has utilized through their wing backs, relying on either of those Inter Milan attackers to keep up is more hopefully than prudent.

Then again, Argentina could go back to the five-defender setup -the one they used in their tournament’s opening match. Unfortunately, that leaves Sabella with the same questions he’d have with a 4-3-3: How does Argentina play an effective three-man midfield without Di María?

At some point over the next three days, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal will have to make an educated guess about how Argentina will play and set up his team accordingly, but given di María’s importance, a guess will be as good as it gets. Even van Gaal will some uncertainty as to how Argentina replaces Ángel Di María.

Barcelona plan Cruyff tribute at club’s training center

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) One year after his death, Barcelona says it will name the future stadium at its training center after Dutch great Johan Cruyff.

The new stadium at Barcelona’s training center just outside the Catalan city will be called “Johan Cruyff Stadium” in honor of the club’s former player and coach.

Barcelona says in a statement that “the most emblematic building in the facility where future Barca players are coached is to be named after somebody who played such a central role in fostering youth talent at the club.”

Barcelona also says it will commission a “commemorative sculpture” of Cruyff, who died of lung cancer on March 24 last year at age 68. The statue will be placed at Barcelona’s main Camp Nou stadium.

Cruyff is largely credited with launching Barcelona’s era of trophy success, both as a player and a coach.

As a player, Cruyff joined Barcelona midseason in 1973 and led the middle-of-the-table team to its first national title in a decade.

He later returned as a coach and guided Barcelona to four consecutive Spanish leagues from 1991-94 and the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

“I think the tributes are very warming,” said Cruyff’s son, Jordi Cruyff. “It sort of changes the sadness that we might feel as family to lose a father, a husband and a grandfather. It changes to a certain kind of pride to understand that he left something behind.”

MLS Snapshot: Defense optional — Crew SC outlast Timbers, 3-2

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The game in 100 words (or less): As far as teams who get out in the open field and score the lion’s share of their goals on the counter-attacking, there aren’t many MLS teams better than Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers. The two sides met Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium, site of their MLS Cup 2015 clash, and lived up to their reputations. Of the five goals scored, two were notched on flat-out counters and two more came to pass through quick transitional movements. Portland (9 points) dropped their first points of the season, falling 3-2 to goals scored by Justin Meram, Ola Kamara and Niko Hansen, while Crew SC have back-to-back wins and find themselves level on points (7) with the New York Red Bulls with each side having played four games.

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS (afternoon) roundup ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

4′ — Asprilla opens the scoring early on — 2017 Crew SC defending, same as 2016 Crew SC defending.

11′ — Meram fires home the rebound for 1-1 — One of Portland’s biggest weaknesses last season was their set-piece defending. Looks like not much has changed.

19′ — Higuain feeds Kamara for a 2-1 lead — The question mark that Portland will eventually have to answer is this: How much, if at all, have they improved defensively in the open field? Based on this Crew SC counter-attack, the answer might be “not much.”

45+3′ — Adi recovers to make it 2-2 — Everything Adi does these days (even the bad things, like this first touch) ends up being good.

84′ — Hansen cleans up at the back post for 3-2 — Jake Gleeson made a spectacular reaction save to deny Kamara his second goal of the game, but the rookie, making his MLS debut, was in the right place at the right time.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Asprilla (4′), Meram (11′), Kamara (19′), Adi (45+3′), Hansen (84′)

Andorra’s 11-year, 58-game losing streak is over

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Rarely has a scoreless stalemate in front of the home fans tasted so sweet.

But 11 years of nothing but losing will do that to a team.

Andorra’s 0-0 draw with fellow minnow Faroe Islands in World Cup qualifying on Saturday ended its run of 58 competitive defeats.

It was the first point in qualifying for the Pyrenees mountain principality, population 80,000, since a scoreless draw with Finland in 2005.

Faroe Islands finished with 10 men after Joan Edmundsson was booked a second time with 15 minutes to play.

World Cup qualifiers: Dutch disaster persists; Greece hold Belgium

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s World Cup qualifying fixtures, as Groups A, B and H hit the halfway point in Europe…

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Bulgaria 2-0 Netherlands

Spas Delev scored both Bulgarian goals (5th and 20th minutes) to secure all three points and send Danny Blind’s Netherlands side (7 points) into fourth place in Group A, six points back of leaders France and three back of second-place (qualifying playoffs) Sweden.

17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt was handed his international debut for the Dutch; he was ultimately at fault for both of Delev’s goals; he was subbed off at halftime (as was Georginio Wijnaldum).

Luxembourg 1-3 France

Olivier Giroud scored twice (28th and 77th minutes) for France, and Antoine Griezmann added the other (37th minute – penalty kick), as Les Bleus maintained their three-point lead in Group A. Kylian Mbappe, Monaco’s 18-year-old rising star, made his international debut in the 78th minute, when he replaced Dimitri Payet.

Portugal 3-0 Hungary

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged the 69th and 70th goals of his international career (36th and 65th minutes), as Portugal (12 points) kept pace with an unbeaten Switzerland side (15 points) which managed a 1-0 victory over Latvia to keep their 100-percent record intact. Andre Silva scored the opener (32nd minute) for Portugal, the 21-year-old Porto striker’s fifth goal in six international appearances.

Belgium 1-1 Greece

Romelu Lukaku‘s 89th-minute rescued a point for Group H leaders Belgium (13 points), but it did little to mask an otherwise uninspiring performance from Roberto Martinez’s side. Kostas Mitroglu put Greece ahead in the first minute of the second half, but Panagiotis Tachtsidis saw his second yellow of the game in the 65th minute, and that was the start of Greece’s unraveling. The draw was just enough to keep Greece (11 points) in second, ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose 5-0 thrashing of Gibraltar moved them to 10 points with a superior goal differential.

Elsewhere in UEFA’s World Cup qualifying

Group A

Sweden 4-0 Belarus

Group B

Switzerland 1-0 Latvia
Andorra 0-0 Faroe Islands

Group H

Bosnia-Herzegovina 5-0 Gibraltar
Cyprus 0-0 Estonia