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Preview: Netherlands’ turn to solve Messi, Argentina

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As a head coach, Carlos Queiroz’s reputation is mixed, albeit one that’s been bolstered at this World Cup. Though his team, Iran, failed to advance out of its group, the defensive performance it put in against Lionel Messi brought back memories of 2008. Then, as an assistant with Manchester United, the former Real Madrid boss helped implement a plan that kept the Barcelona star scoreless over two games in UEFA Champions League’s semifinal. Were it not for a long range, 91st minute goal in this summer, Queiroz would have solved Messi once more.

The key, it’s since come out, is space. Contest his first touch, and if you can’t win the ball, make sure he ends up moving away from goal. Don’t let him turn with the ball, pick up speed going at the defense, and have a chance to read his teammates’ runs. Don’t give Messi the space to be Messi.

For most teams that would be easier said than done – a tactic that would risk throwing the defense into turmoil as it tried to keep track of La Pulga (the Flea). Not so with the Netherlands. Instead, this is where Louis van Gaal’s team benefit from being grouped with Spain.

Against a team that plays so much like Messi’s Barcelona, van Gaal went with three central defenders, giving him a huge numerical advantage at the back. Yet instead of staying in place to mind Spanish striker Diego Costa, the likes of Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij, and even veteran Ron Vlaar took turns tracking attacking midfielder Andrés Iniesta into midfield.

They did the same with David Silva. When those two playmakers got the ball, often they were forced into playing negative pass, touching back to deep midfielders Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. When Iniesta and Silva were denied possession, Costa had to drop back from the defense to provide an outlet. Spain’s attack sputtered.

[ MORE : From 1974 to 2006: History of Argentina and the Netherlands at World Cups ]

Argentina and Spain are different teams, but as Alejandro Sabella’s become the latest coach to try to replicate Messi’s club form, the Albiceleste have continued to evolve toward Barcelona. As it concerns tomorrow’s game, that would mean Messi as the focal point, in a free role, planted behind one forward (Gonzalo Higuaín). Instead of the Dutch defense having to worry about two men (Iniesta and Silva), they may have the luxury of focusing on one.

The slow fade of Messi’s final critics

But oh, what a one. After two World Cups that gave detractors license to pick apart performances, Lionel Messi’s 2014 brilliance is undeniable. Never mind that he was only 19 at his first World Cup (Germany 2006) and actually very good, if short on goals, at his second (South Africa 2010).  A naive criticism had taken root, portraying a player who has 68 career UEFA Champions League goals as troubled by the World Cup’s occasion.

Title-minded
source: APThe Netherlands are two steps away from the country’s first world title, while Argentina, having claimed the crown in 1978 and 1986, are looking for their first win since the days of Diego Maradona:

Nation Titles
Brazil 5
Italy 4
Germany 3
Argentina 2
Uruguay 2
France 1
England 1
Spain 1

Four goals and one assist later, and Messi’s crafted a World Cup to make his doubters into fools. The idea that Messi, so great at Barcelona, somehow became an inferior player for his country never made sense. The want to look beyond a strong 2010 only confirmed that bias. Messi was always working against critics that were only interested in bottom lines, ignoring the fact that Argentina had often used him in different, sub-optimal roles. Now, between his raw production and his team’s semifinal run, he’s ruined his critics’ summer.

[ MORE: With Angel Di Maria out, what other options do Argentina have? ]
[ MORE: Robin van Persie could miss Netherlands’ World Cup semifinal vs. Argentina ]

Whether he can ruin the Netherlands’, too, may end up in his teammates’ hands. If the Dutch use Queiroz’s approach and focus on Messi, it will be up to Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia, Argentina’s two deep midfielders in the quarterfinals, to find others who can make a difference going forward. On one side, that will likely be Ezequiel Lavezzi, a player who can make Dutch markers pay with his ability to beat them one-on-one. On the other, it would be Enzo Pérez, Maxi Rodríguez, or Rodrigo Palacio. Regardless, Sabella will need a Plan B – some other way to find forward Gonzalo Higuaín, should Messi draw too much attention.

Send your hopes directly to Arjen

The one thing Mascherano and Biglia won’t be able to do, however, is leave their defense unprotected. Even though Robin van Persie, one of the Netherlands’ two main threats up top, looks doubtful for Wednesday’s game, the Dutch still have a weapon that’s been as dangerous as Messi. Thanks to three goals, one assist, and the constant threat he’s posed the Netherlands’ opposition, Arjen Robben’s put himself in contention for the Golden Ball.

With their new propensity to play long and direct — potentially drawing in an Argentine team that’s keeping 61 pct. possession — the Netherlands have gotten the most out of Robben, who also drew a game-winning penalty in the Round of 16 against Mexico. One of the fastest players in the world, the 30-year-old can win this game on his own Dutch if he’s allowed to challenge José Basanta, Ezequiel Garay, and Martín Demichelis. A worry coming into the tournament, Argentina’s defense will become a nightmare if Mascherano and Biglia can’t provide support.

In that way, van Persie’s absence may not be decisive. Same with Messi’s command, though the Dutch will certainly try to account for it. Instead, it may come down to Ángel di María, the versatile Argentina midfielder who tore his thigh in the Albiceleste’s quarterfinal. It may come down to Sergio Agüero, whose return to Sabella’s team will likely come at the expense of somebody who can help protect the defense. It may come down to tall the ways Argentina can augment Messi without compromising their ability to stop Robben.

If they can strike that balance, the Albiceleste will likely play for their third title. Else, the Dutch get a chance to claim their first, at the expense of the Germans.

Chelsea 1-0 West Brom: Costa’s 12th of year extends unbeaten run to nine

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 11:  Diego Costa of Chelsea scores the opening goal past Ben Foster of West Bromwich Albion during the Premier League match between Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on December 11, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Chelsea were held in check for much of Sunday’s encounter but Diego Costa‘s second-half moment of magic provided the Blues with a 1-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge.

[ MORE: Man United-Tottenham, Saints-Middlesbrough in action on Sunday ]

The Blues striker came up with a key dispossession of Gareth McAuley with 15 minutes remaining in regular time, before calmly slotting his chance past Ben Foster for the lead. Costa has now scored 12 goals this season, which leads the entire Premier League.

Chelsea moves three points clear of Arsenal at the top of PL once more after securing its ninth-consecutive victory on Sunday. The Blues have scored 23 goals in that span while conceded just twice.

The visitors nearly caught Chelsea napping in the 26th minute as Salomon Rondon pulled a left-footed chance just wide of Thibaut Courtois and the Blues net against the run of play.

Despite a healthy spell of possession early on, the Blues struggled to break down the West Brom backline for much of the opening stanza. Antonio Conte‘s group mustered up just one effort on target as the Baggies packed numbers behind the ball to limit the Chelsea attack.

While the opportunities were limited in the first half, Diego Costa nearly broke the deadlock on 38 minutes when Pedro provided an excellent service into the penalty area, with the cross narrowly missing the head of the Spanish striker.

Watch Live: Man United vs. Spurs | Saints vs. Middlesbrough (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 10:  Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur holds off Michael Carrick of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane on April 10, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Manchester United hosts Tottenham from Old Trafford (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in a clash that provides both clubs the opportunity to remain in sight of the Premier League’s leaders..

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Jose Mourinho’s side enters Sunday on a five-match unbeaten run in PL play, however, the Red Devils come in frustrated after dropping points in three straight draws. For Spurs, Mauricio Pochettino and co. have won two straight in all competitions, scoring eight goals in the process, following the side’s first PL defeat to Chelsea two weeks back.

For United, the squad will see many regulars on the bench to start Sunday’s encounter, including Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney. Meanwhile, Tottenham will look to Harry Kane and Son to keep the team’s attack flying on all cylinders.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea, Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Darmian, Carrick (C), Herrera, Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Martial, Ibrahimovic. Subs: Romero, Bailly, Blind, Fellaini, Mata, Rashford, Rooney.

Spurs: Lloris (C); Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Wanyama, Dembele; Eriksen, Dele, Son; Kane. Subs: Vorm, Wimmer, Davies, Dier, Winks, Sissoko, Nkoudou.


Southampton hosts Middlesbrough from St. Mary’s Stadium (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET available online via NBCSports.com) as the Boro look to create separation between them and the league’s bottom sides.

Both sides enter Sunday winless in three of their last four PL fixtures, however, a victory for either side would push them closer to the top half of the table.

The Saints will have much depth on the bench if necessary, including Shane Long and Nathan Redmond, while Cristian Stuani leads the way up front for the Boro.

Southampton: Forster, Clasie, Fonte (C), Rodriguez, Tadic, Romeu, Martina, Ward-Prowse, Van Dijk, Boufal, McQueen. Subs: Taylor, Yoshida, Long, Davis, Reed, Bertrand, Redmond.

Middlesbrough: Valdes, Barragan, Chambers, Gibson, Fabio, Clayton, De Roon, Forshaw, Stuani, Fischer, Rhodes. Subs: Guzan, Bernardo, Nsue, Leadbitter, Traore, Downing, Nugent.

Dier: Euros, injuries affected form early in season

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Eric Dier of Tottenham Hotspur (L) and Michail Antonio of West Ham United (R) battle for the ball in teh air during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United at White Hart Lane on November 19, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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Despite starting 2016/17 with just one defeat in their first 14 Premier League matches, one of Tottenham’s key figures from a season ago has gotten off to a quiet start.

[ MORE: Spurs visit Manchester United, Liverpool hosts West Ham ]

While Spurs currently sit fifth in the PL table, Eric Dier has been a shell of himself in the early going of the campaign for Mauricio Pochettino‘s group, and the Englishman believes it’s likely because of the long summer at EURO 2016.

[ MORE: Leicester shock Man City in Saturday’s PL slate ]

The 22-year-old has been tasked with playing multiple positions thus far, as injuries forced the midfielder back into defense at times this season. However, Dier remains confident that he will pick up his play and can help Tottenham no matter which role he plays.

“It is completely up to the manager where I play. What is more important is making sure I’m feeling good mentally,” Dier said. “That is more important to me. If I get back to that, where I have a good feeling and my confidence is back, then whatever position I am playing in, I will be able to play.

“I feel that I am getting it back – last weekend and against CSKA. I am just trying to get everything back to the levels of last season.

“It has been a difficult start for me this season – it has been there for everyone to see.

“It has been tough coming back late from the Euros because I haven’t really been able to get going. Then I got injured a couple of games into the season and that halted me again. And when Toby got injured I played at the back again.

“This is football and these things happen to everyone. It has not been a ­catastrophe – it has just been a bit of a low start.

“I don’t think there has ever been a really low point. It is just about getting back to where I want to be.”

Dier notched three goals and two assists in the PL a season ago, however, the young midfielder has yet to hit the scoresheet in 2016 despite appearing in 13 matches.

Sunday’s test against Manchester United would be an ideal time for Dier to find the back of the net as Spurs look to build off of last weekend’s 5-0 thrashing of Swansea.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. West Brom (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea and Joleon Lescott of West Brom battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on November 22, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea hosts West Bromwich Albion from Stamford Bridge (Watch live, 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blues look to extend their eight-match win streak.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

The Blues make one change from last weekend’s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Manchester City as Cesc Fabregas makes way in the starting XI for Nemanja Matic.

Antonio Conte‘s side will be opposed by a West Brom side that is unbeaten in their last four Premier League matches. The Baggies remain unchanged from last week’s 3-1 win over Watford as the side looks to move above eighth in the table.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill (c); Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard. Subs: Begovic, Aina, Ivanovic, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

West Brom: Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Nyom; Yacob, Fletcher (c); Brunt, Morrison, Phillips; Rondon. Subs: Palmer; Olsson, Robson-Kanu, Gardner, McClean, Galloway, Chadli.