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.

Report: Landon Donovan mulling U.S. Soccer presidential run

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Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl has been all over the turmoil at United States Soccer since the men’s national team’s embarrassing World Cup qualifying ouster last week.

The latest is that many interested observers are encouraging American legend Landon Donovan to run against Sunil Gulati in February’s presidential election.

[ MORE: JPW sits down with Ederson ]

Donovan retired from playing for a second time in 2016. He’s invested in Premier League club Swansea City and tried his hand at broadcasting as well.

According to Wahl, Donovan issued no comment when asked whether he is seriously considering a run for president. Gulati didn’t confirm that he’d run for a fourth term — the maximum tenure — during his post-World Cup failure conference call, but strongly lauded his credentials for another stint.

Wahl had previously reported that lawyer Steve Gans has the required letters of nomination to run against Gulati.

While Gans would challenge Gulati and perhaps make for interesting debate and a bellwether of the appetite for change amongst the constituency, Donovan’s name would likely be enough to swing some voters regardless.

Without making any judgments about the job Donovan would do, think of it as a big entertainment name like Dwayne Johnson amongst Democrats or Donald Trump amongst Republicans who might upturn eyebrows amongst folks thinking, “Maybe we need something different.” The name value isn’t the same but perhaps it’s less polarizing to compare the runs of Jesse Ventura and Al Franken, or Jack Kemp and Steve Largent instead.

A Donovan run would likely keep U.S Soccer’s cozy relationship with Major League Soccer while perhaps emboldening those who seek big changes within the youth structure (Donovan was part of the U.S. residency program which was recently canceled in a sort of “We did it” nod to academies). His experience is varied and his network exceptional.

Donovan for President? Maybe!

Wenger’s fiery response to Deeney comments: “You can’t question our character”

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Arsene Wenger was none too pleased at Troy Deeney‘s comments question whether Arsenal had the “cajones” to compete at the top of the Premier League.

The Arsenal boss blasted back at the Watford striker, telling reporters “you can’t question our character.”

Speaking at his pre-match press conference ahead of Arsenal’s Europa League match at Red Star Belgrade, Wenger launched into an attack of his own. “People try and put us down, they always have. Those comments aren’t justified. Everyone is entitled to talk. We don’t listen to what people say – we try to analyze or own game. I love my players and I trust their strength of character to respond quickly. I know who my players really are.”

[ MORE: Everton boss Koeman cracks joke, “Maybe I am in the crisis” ]

When asked if Deeney’s comments hurt, Wenger replied, “Yes but I know who my players really are. In the last seven games we had six wins and one draw. ‘Comments are part of the modern game. I love my players and I trust their strength of character to respond.”

The Frenchman was responding to comments by Deeney following Watford’s 2-1 comeback victory over Arsenal. The 29-year-old was told that Wenger disagreed with the penalty that allowed the Hornets to draw level, and he responded by saying, “There’s a reason they lost and is wasn’t because of one penalty. I have to watch what I say but… having a bit of cojones, I think the word is. Having a bit of nuts. ‘Whenever I play Arsenal and this is just personal, I go up and I think let me whack the first one, let’s see who wants it. ‘I came on today, I jumped up with [Per] Mertesacker, didn’t even have to jump actually, nod it down, the crowd gets up, and they all just backed off.’

As Everton struggles continue, Koeman jests: “Maybe I’m in the crisis”

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Ronald Koeman may be joking, but Everton’s table position does not appear to be humorous.

The Dutch boss, under fire for the Toffees poor start to the season that sees them in 16th through the first eight matches of the season, has done little to endear himself to Everton fans. His latest stunt won’t help his cause.

Koeman, hoping to make light of his dire situation, joked at Everton’s pre-match press conference ahead of their Europa League match against Lyon on Thursday. When asked if he is four matches away from a crisis, Koeman answered, “Maybe I’m in the crisis.”

The comment came with a wry smile and a chuckle, clearly making light of the situation. However, the words were far more ominous. The question made reference to comments former Leicester City boss Craig Shakespeare made just a day before his recent sacking, saying “It’s the reality, we all understand that you can draw four games on the trot and the spin becomes that you haven’t won for four games.” He was fired the next day.

Koeman was pressed on his job status further, and he responded with a more level-headed answer. “Everybody knows in football the manager’s job is a really difficult job because things change really fast,” Koeman said Wednesday. “Most of the time, the manager doesn’t get time to improve the team.”

The Dutchman confirmed he met with Everton majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri on Friday while his boss was in town, and that he received their backing verbally. “We spoke about football,” Koeman said. “There was not really a message but the feeling is that they (the board) are behind the team, they are behind the manager. Everybody knows in football that’s a nice thing but in football always, finally, it’s all about results. Until now it’s full, total support from the board, yes.”

Not only does Everton rest just two points above the relegation zone, but they also sit bottom of their Europa League group with a single point through two matches.

Man City’s Ederson: “I was born to play with my feet”

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MANCHESTER — The gray skies over the City Football Academy would have produced a grimace from most, but a towering Brazilian goalkeeper was smiling from ear to ear.

Ederson Santana de Moraes strode into the room with a wink and a smile to imitate the smiley face emoji tattooed just behind his left ear.

The boy from Sao Paulo feels at home in Manchester after his $46 million move from Benfica in the summer (which made him the most expensive goalkeeper on the planet) and just over a week since he made his debut for the Brazilian national team he is being lauded by fans and pundits across the world.

Siting back in his chair as he looked out at the dour Manchester sky and the meeting room lights glistened off the braces on his teeth, the 24-year-old is a long way from Lisbon or Sao Paulo.

“It has been a really positive experience so far,” Ederson said, via a translator. “Obviously the cities are a little different. Lisbon is more tropical, here it is more cold and rainy. But I am settled in well, I like life here and I am ready and prepare for any circumstances. I am settling in here very well.”

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Ederson played the hero for Man City less than 24 hours earlier as he saved a penalty kick in their hugely important UEFA Champions League win against Napoli. Today he was back at the training ground and was taking part in a SkillsCity app challenge in conjunction with the club launching its first-ever US SkillCity final this December in California.

The competition (presented by Nexen) is open until November 19 for young players aged 5-14 across the U.S. who can submit their best skills, following guidance from City’s coaches, via the app ahead of the final in California where eight winners will be announced from 32 players selected from across the USA. It’s a novel idea and the prize will be a VIP trip to Manchester in 2018 to see a game, stay at the CFA and more.

“I remember when I was a kid I couldn’t watch much on TV because the games were not on,” Ederson explained. “Having these kind of apps these days help a lot to develop skills and help the kids to practice, to improve and test their skills. It is really positive.”

Ederson’s skills have certainly been positive since he arrived at City as the Brazilian has been hailed as the missing piece of the jigsaw in Guardiola’s side.

His composure with the ball at his feet and ability to come charging out of his goal has provided plenty of confidence to City’s defense.

“I was born with those skills, being able to play with my feet. When I started playing as a player I was playing as a defender or a full back. That helped me with my adaptation to play with my feet. Through time I have developed those skills and even now I keep training with my feet because it is very important,” Ederson said. “In the past maybe I didn’t spend so much time training with the players that were in front of me. Now we are more involved and maybe that is why I can now show my qualities with the football.”

Ederson’s confidence in coming off his line saw him injured in City’s 5-0 win against Liverpool earlier this season as he was clattered by Sadio Mane and suffered a deep gash on his face which required several stitches.

That resulted in Mane being sent off and Ederson being carried off but his quick recovery impressed City’s fans and enhanced his growing reputation as a steely competitor who is a formidable last line of defense.

“It has been a good start for me here at City. It has been a very positive experience for me so far and the fans help me a lot and their support is very important for me. What happened in the Liverpool game with Sadio Mane, those things can happen in football,” Ederson said. “I got injured and I could have continued playing but the cut was quite big so they wouldn’t let me continue.”

Ederson’s speedy recovery saw him play a few days later at Feyenoord and the improvement in City’s defense has been stark since his arrival with just four goals conceded in eight games in the PL so far.

“I think I am a calm goalkeeper and a calm person as well and I try to give calm to my teammates,” Ederson said. “I help a lot in the build up and the long balls as well. But mainly I would say a goalkeeper must be a calm person to cope with the pressure to handle when you make a mistake. I think that’s really important and it helps you a lot to develop your skills.

“I think modern football has evolved a lot. Goalkeepers do several things during the game. They help in the build up. That is very important, to play with your feet, it is very important to know how to read the game and obviously save balls and also handle the pressure when it comes to the crunch time.”

Where does Ederson’s extreme ability and composure with the ball at his feet come from?

Look no further than the club where he came through the ranks and who he supported as a kid, Sao Paulo, to find his idol.

“Rogerio Ceni who played for Sao Paulo. He was my idol. He was the guy I looked up to and he played for the same club, Sao Paulo, for 25 years. He won a lot of trophies and had a lot of chances to leave the club but he stayed there. He became the main idol of the club. All the skills I have now, I would say that’s because I saw him,” Ederson smiled. “He played well with his feet and was good in the build up and he was even a goalscorer with penalty kicks and free kicks. He made history at the club and he was my main idol.”

A revelation with his feet in the Premier League so far, will Ederson, like his hero, be coming up to take penalties and free kicks anytime soon?

“No free kicks… but if there is a chance to ever take a penalty I am going to ask the manager and I would do it!” Ederson laughs.

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Pointing to the tattoos all over his body and explaining their significance, including a passage from the bible on the back of his left calf and other markings to honor his family, it is easy to forgot how far Ederson has come in such a short space of time.

He moved to Benfica from Brazil as a 16-year-old and then dropped down to the third division with Ribeirao on loan before moving to Rio Ave where he made his name playing regularly, before heading back to Benfica and taking his chance after an injury to the regular starter.

Discussing his hometown of Osasco, Ederson revealed he has no plans to return to Brazil when his playing days are over.

“I left my hometown very early. I cannot remember much. I have friends and family there so when I have holidays I try to go there to my home village. It is very calm but because I left very early I don’t miss it that much,” Ederson said. “To be honest, I am not planning to go back and live there when I retire. The plan is to stay here in Europe with my family because it is calm and safer so in my future, my family and I are thinking about when I retire we will move to Portugal because of the language and the lifestyle.”

When asked what he and his teammates can achieve this season after winning seven of their opening eight PL matches and all three of their UEFA Champions League group games, Ederson is confident Pep Guardiola has built a side who can dominate now and for many years to come.

“I think Man City has built a really great team, a really young team both for the present and the future. I think we are ready to fight for everything,” Ederson said.” The Premier League, the cups, the Champions League. If we keep doing the good work we are doing, we will have a lot of chances to win one, two or three trophies. We must keep working hard and focus on the targets.”

Ederson achieved one of his long-term targets last week by making his debut for the Brazilian national team in their World Cup qualifying win against Chile.

He is dreaming of being on the Selecao’s plane to Russia for the 2018 World Cup next summer.

“I was very happy to play my first game with Brazil and also that it was in my city, Sao Paulo, with my family watching at the stadium. We won and we got a clean sheet, so it was perfect,” Ederson smiled. “I’m following this path towards looking at the World Cup on the horizon and I would be very happy if I was chosen in the final list. But we have to wait because the season is long but it would be a dream come true to play in the World Cup because I have been working so hard in the last years to be able to be there.”

“My Brazilian teammates [Gabriel Jesus, Danilo, Fernandinho] helped me a lot here to adapt and settle in. I knew them before from the national team, so obviously they make my life easier here.”

Ederson’s confident and commanding displays are making City’s chances of winning it all a lot easier this season.

Pep seems to have finally found the playmaking goalkeeper he has craved since he arrived in Manchester.