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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.

NASL roundup: Puerto Rico nabs first win in history; Indy passes Cosmos

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As you were, top of the table.

Indy Eleven remains first and New York Cosmos second after the fifth week of the NASL’s Fall Season, just where they finished the Spring: level on points but separated by tiebreakers.

That’s because Indy took down surprising FC Edmonton 1-0, taking advantage of New York’s draw in Tampa Bay to match the Cosmos’ record at 3-1-1.

[ MORE: Messi back, blonde at Barca ]

In Bayamon, Paulo Mendes found Hector Ramos for the lone goal of the match in the 53rd minute, and Puerto Rico FC picked up its first win in team history with a 1-0 win over visiting Rayo OKC on Saturday night.

Only one team in the league remains winless, as Fort Lauderdale fell 3-1 to Minnesota United. Christian Ramirez scored his league-best 11th goal of the season, while J.C. Banks and Ismaila Jome also netted for the victors.

Elsewhere, Carolina drew Miami 3-3 on Friday night, while Ottawa picked up its first win of the Fall Season with a 2-0 win in Florida against Jacksonville Armada.

NASL Table 72416

Ranieri on Leicester post-Kante: “Don’t worry. Football in Leicester will keep going”

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JULY 23: Leicester City manager Claudio Raneri looks on during the Pre Seanon Friendly match between Cetlic and Leicester City at Celtic Park Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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Claudio Ranieri hasn’t lost his way with words over the summer.

The Leicester City boss who famously refused to admit his team was in a title race for most of the Premier League season is keeping it cool in the wake of N'Golo Kante signing for Chelsea.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Simply put, Ranieri says everything’s going to be fine.

From Sky Sports:

“Last season we lost Esteban Cambiasso and everybody was crying,” Ranieri said, after his side drew 1-1 with Celtic in a pre-season friendly.

“Now we are crying because we lost Kante. Don’t worry. Football in Leicester will keep going.”

Kante was probably the most important part of Leicester’s title capture last season, but Ranieri’s system was also critical. The follow-up was always going to be a challenge, but the Foxes won’t sit on their hands moving forward.

Don’t worry.

Mertesacker on Arsenal’s season: “Not a lot of signings and a lot of young players”

Arsenal's Per Mertesacker celebrates his goal against Wigan Athletic during their English FA Cup semi-final soccer match at Wembley Stadium in London
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Arsene Wenger says Arsenal is still looking for the right big names to join the club, but defender Per Mertesacker seems ready to battle without additions.

The big German defender was quite outspoken when it comes to the club’s second place finish in the 2015-16 Premier League, saying it was a “miracle” they finished that high.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Mertesacker, 31, notes the giant clubs who finished behind Arsenal on the PL table, and that several of those competitors have made big pick-ups in the transfer market.

From The Sun:

“A lot of transfer business has already been done and it won’t be easy for us this time, especially with all the signings going to the other clubs.

“So we also need to be stronger and I am looking forward to seeing how well we compete for the title with not a lot of signings and a lot of young players.”

Arsenal has added Granit Xhaka and English U-21 back Rob Holding, but patience seems thin amongst Gooners across the globe. Are Mertesacker’s comments a hint that the players aren’t expecting much?

Transfer rumor roundup: Icardi’s Italian stay, Atleti still seek Costa

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 07:  Mauro Icardi (L) of FC Internazionale Milano celebrates after scoring the opening goal with team mate Stevan Jovetic during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Empoli FC  at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 7, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
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Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Icardi both spent some time as potential Arsenal players in the summer rumor mills, but will the former’s move to Juventus keep the latter from the Emirates Stadium?

As we wait for official confirmation that Juventus has purchased Higuain from Napoli for $103 million, it seems Napoli is aiming to replace him with Icardi. Football Italia says Inter has rejected an offer of $22 million plus Manolo Gabbiadini that would send Icardi to Naples.

[ MORE: Messi back, blonde at Barca ]

Gabbiadini has 20 goals in 60 matches for Napoli, but Icardi is among the hottest properties in the world. The 23-year-old Argentine is signed through 2019, and the fee is obviously going to be quite high, but Napoli is ready to spend money that others may not.


Many players have been rumored for the “fourth chair” behind Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez in the Barcelona attack orchestra, but could the issue be settled with a reserve from Atletico Madrid?

Luciano Vietto, 22, is being linked with a $24 million move from the Vicente Calderon to the Camp Nou. AS says personal terms are the only obstacle remaining, and Vietto would have a lot to prove in Barcelona. After belting 20 goals for Valencia in 2014-15, Vietto found the net just thrice in 28 matches last season.


Atleti could use that money, according to Marca, as Diego Simeone’s bunch reportedly believes it can pry Diego Costa from Chelsea. The Brazilian-born Spanish international has massive success at Atleti before moving to North London, and Simeone has not quit on the idea of bringing him back “home”.


Also, we’re just going to leave this right here, with the lone add-on that Aaron Schoenfeld is tearing it up for Maccabi’s rival.