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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.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern held to draw, but Dortmund can’t capitalize

Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez, top, and Bayern's David Alaba challenge for the ball during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Germany’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: PST’s Bundesliga coverage ]

Bayer Leverkusen 0-0 Bayern Munich

The race for Bundesliga title could have been blown wide open pried open ever so slightly after Bayern Munich dropped two points away to 5th-place side Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. It was far from a classic encounter, with just 15 shots managed between the two sides (3 on target). Bayern’s best chance came during the game’s final 10 minutes, when Robert Lewandowski nearly won it very late on.

The hosts’ best chance at pulling off the shock upset came on 53 minutes, when Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s volley from 25 yards out flashed just wide of Manuel Neuer’s right-hand post.

Hertha Berlin 0-0 Borussia Dortmund

The above possibility hinged, of course, on the only side within 18 points of Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, taking all three points from their visit to 3rd-place Hertha Berlin. They could not do so, thus remain eight seemingly insurmountable points behind the three-time defending champions.

U.S. national team defender John Brooks, who last week signed a new contract to remain at Hertha, is now one point closer to qualifying for the UEFA Champions League with his hometown club.

Schalke 3-0 Wolfsburg

Right on Hertha’s heels, two points back in fourth, is Schalke, who hammered Wolfsburg on Saturday, thanks to goals scored by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Johannes Geis and Alessandro Schopf. That’s three wins in their last four league games for Schalke, while Hertha have left the door wide open with three straight draws.

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Borussia Monchengladbach 5-1 Werder Bremen (Friday)
Eintracht Frankfurt 2-4 Stuttgart
Hannover 0-1 Mainz
Ingolstadt 2-1 Augsburg

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hamburg vs. Koln (9:30 a.m. ET)
Hoffenheim vs. Darmstadt (11:30 a.m. ET)

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Bayern Munich 20 17 2 1 50 9 41 10-0-0 7-2-1 53
Borussia Dortmund 20 14 3 3 52 24 28 8-1-0 6-2-3 45
Hertha BSC Berlin 20 10 5 5 29 21 8 6-3-1 4-2-4 35
FC Schalke 04 20 10 3 7 29 26 3 6-2-3 4-1-4 33
Bayer Leverkusen 20 9 5 6 29 21 8 5-3-2 4-2-4 32
Mönchengladbach 20 10 2 8 40 35 5 7-1-3 3-1-5 32
FSV Mainz 05 20 9 3 8 25 24 1 5-1-4 4-2-4 30
VfL Wolfsburg 20 7 6 7 29 28 1 6-3-1 1-3-6 27
FC Ingolstadt 04 20 7 5 8 14 21 -7 4-2-4 3-3-4 26
1. FC Köln 19 6 7 6 20 25 -5 3-4-3 3-3-3 25
VfB Stuttgart 20 7 3 10 31 41 -10 4-1-5 3-2-5 24
Hamburger SV 19 6 4 9 21 27 -6 2-2-5 4-2-4 22
FC Augsburg 20 5 6 9 22 28 -6 2-3-5 3-3-4 21
Eintracht Frankfurt 20 5 6 9 26 34 -8 3-3-4 2-3-5 21
Darmstadt 19 5 6 8 19 29 -10 1-4-5 4-2-3 21
Werder Bremen 20 5 4 11 24 41 -17 1-2-6 4-2-5 19
1899 Hoffenheim 19 2 8 9 18 28 -10 1-5-3 1-3-6 14
Hannover 96 20 4 2 14 19 35 -16 2-0-8 2-2-6 14

PL Sunday preview: Chelsea vs. Man United, Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

Manchester United's Ander Herrera reacts after missing a chance during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Monday, Dec. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes are quickly slipping away, thanks to their current four-game winless run — not to mention Leicester City’s red-hot form — much like Manchester United see themselves falling away from the race for the top-four.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Bournemouth are desperately hoping just to avoid a relegation dogfight that goes down to the wire, and Chelsea… well, they’re just kind of there, still sitting in the bottom half of the league table. Sunday’s pair of PL fixtures is full of storylines and implications in the context of the season as a whole.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Arsenal’s recent form couldn’t have come at a worse time, which is hardly surprising when considering they’d been far and away the best team in England for a little over 12 straight months; they were bound to slip up at some point. Having been top of the league themselves barely two weeks ago, the Gunners have fallen to fourth, eight points behind Leicester. Not even the return of Alexis Sanchez has provided the much-needed spark for an attack that has failed to find the back of the net in three straight games (305 minutes in total, dating back to their 3-3 draw with Liverpool).

As for Bournemouth, only Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur (9 each) have won more points from their last three league fixtures than the Cherries (7). Callum Wilson (five goals), whose season ended back on Sept. 26 (knee), remains Bournemouth’s leading scorer on the season, though Arsenal youth academy product Benik Afobe has proven an inspired January signing thus far (three goals in four games). Bournemouth are winless in their two all-time meetings with the Gunners, dating back to a 3-0 League Cup defeat in 1987. When these sides met for the first time this season, back on Dec. 28, it was Arsenal who were victorious, 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium.

On the injury front, Bournemouth have a mostly clean bill of health, as Junior Stanislas (knee) is the only recent addition to long-term absentees Wilson, Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings. For Arsenal, Santi Cazorla (knee), Tomas Rosicky (thigh) and Carl Jenkinson (knee) will all miss another month at least, while Jack Wilshere (leg) and Danny Welbeck (knee) remain without definitive timetables to return.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Chelsea vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

This one used to really mean something. Those were the days, weren’t they? These days, Chelsea need a win just to leapfrog Crystal Palace for 12th place. On a positive note, the Blues are unbeaten in 10 games in all competitions since the departure of Jose Mourinho, but have won just three of eight league games during that period. Diego Costa is scoring goals semi-regularly again, but he’s also acting out in his usual Sunday League-like manner, which means he could either spontaneously combust on the field of play, or hop the next flight back to Madrid without telling anyone what’s going on.

As for Man United, they’re actually scoring goals these days (six combined in their last two games – all competitions), which has Louis Van Gaal dreaming of a title challenge once again. On a really positive note, Wayne Rooney has scored seven goals in his last seven games in all competitions (five in five in the PL) and has forged a really sound partnership with 20-year-old Anthony Martial up top (three assists, one goal in last two games – all competitions). A top-four place is still a very realistic target for the Red Devils — though it likely won’t matter with regards to Van Gaal’s job status — but it’ll take everything Rooney and Martial have between them to overcome Van Gaal’s ultra-defensive tactics and score enough goals to get there.

When these sides met on the final matchday of 2015, the proceedings at Old Trafford ended a stale 0-0 draw one might expect from a Van Gaal-versus-Mourinho meeting of the minds, if only the Portuguese had still been in charge at the time. On the injury front, Chelsea are nearly 100 percent healthy, with only Radamel Falcao (leg) still unavailable for selection. For United, the latest injury report is extensive: Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Phil Jones (ankle) and Marcos Rojo (shoulder) will all miss Sunday’s clash, while Marouane Fellaini (knock) is questionable.