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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.

Blatter says he will accept verdict as CAS appeal begins

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter speaks during the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter arrived for his appeal hearing against a six-year ban from football on Thursday, pledging to accept the verdict of the Court of Arbitration for Sport

“I do hope it will be positive for me,” Blatter, sporting a light gray beard, told reporters at around 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) ahead of a hearing expected to last several hours.

The court’s verdict is expected within several weeks, and could be challenged in a further appeal to Switzerland’s supreme court.

The 80-year-old Blatter denies wrongdoing in authorizing a $2 million payment to former FIFA vice president Michel Platini in 2011. They claimed it was for backdated and uncontracted salary for work Platini did in advising Blatter from 1999 to 2002.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The so-called “disloyal payment” led Blatter to be put under investigation for criminal mismanagement by Swiss federal prosecutors last September. That investigation is ongoing.

FIFA’s ethics committee judged the $2 million deal was a conflict of interest and initially banned Blatter and Platini for eight years last December. FIFA’s appeal committee cut both bans to six years.

Platini’s appeal to CAS was already judged in May, when Blatter appeared in person as a witness. Platini promised a further appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal after his ban was only cut from six to four years.

Platini arrived at the hearing around midday local time to be a witness. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Blatter’s comments Thursday suggest he would not pursue a federal case. Federal judges can intervene only if legal process is abused.

“We are football players, we learned to win but also we learned to lose and it will not be the end of the world,” Blatter said outside CAS.

The three-member panel for Blatter’s case is expected to respect the verdict of a separate panel which judged Platini.

A failure to overturn the ban for Blatter would likely end his hope to one day be named FIFA honorary president by its 211 member federations.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The case already ended Platini’s chance to replace Blatter as FIFA president, and also forced him out of European governing body UEFA.

On Sept. 14, UEFA members will elect a successor to replace Platini who had a mandate through March 2019. By imposing a four-year ban, the CAS panel ensured UEFA had to replace Platini, rather than wait for him to return.

The “disloyal payment” emerged last year when Platini was strongly favored to win the election to replace Blatter, who had announced his departure plans after 17 years as president amid pressure from American and Swiss federal investigations of corruption implicating senior FIFA officials.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

Both men were questioned at FIFA headquarters last September by Swiss investigators who were waiting for them outside an executive committee meeting.

During the turmoil in world football, Platini’s right-hand man at UEFA, Gianni Infantino, submitted an election candidacy on the entry deadline day and won the vote in February.

Arriving at the hearing with his Zurich-based lawyer Lorenz Erni, Blatter said he hoped the CAS panel “will understand that the payment made to Platini was really a debt that we had against him.”

“This is a principle, if you have debts you pay them,” Blatter said.

NASL weekend preview: Miami, Minnesota meet playoff fortunes head on

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There are still two full months of soccer to go in the NASL’s Fall Season, but this weekend could be a major day for the title fortunes of one squad in particular.

Miami FC and Minnesota United are level on points with 15 heading into Saturday’s match at FIU Stadium.

[ MORE: MLS Weekend Preview ]

If you’re unfamiliar, the NASL Playoffs involve four teams: the Spring champion (Indy Eleven), the Fall champion, and two other teams with the best combined record between seasons.

Miami’s played one fewer game, and both it and Minnesota — fresh off the news it’s headed to MLS in 2017 — are seven points shy of first-place FC Edmonton.

But Minnesota is on pace to make the playoffs through combined schedule, while Miami had a poor first half and would be better served to win the Fall Season if it wants a shot at the NASL Soccer Bowl Trophy.

Saturday
Carolina Railhawks at New York Cosmos
Rayo OKC at Tampa Bay Rowdies
Minnesota United at Miami FC

Sunday
Indy Eleven at Ottawa Fury
Puerto Rico at FC Edmonton

Arsenal reportedly set for $69 million double Friday buy

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 14:  Lucas Perez of RC Deportivo la Coruna reacts during the La Liga match between Rayo Vallecano and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Estadio Teresa Rivero on September 14, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
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Arsene Wenger‘s much-maligned transfer business is about to take the “much” off the verb.

Lucas Perez of Deportiva de la Coruna is reportedly going to be joining Arsenal on Friday, and the Gunners are also close to finally landing Valencia center back Shkodran Mustafi.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

Perez, 27, broke out for a career-best 17 goals last season, and scored on debut last weekend. He’s set to cost $22.5 million, while Mustafi makes up the other $46.5 million.

The 12-times capped German center back stands 6-foot, and would bring stability to a Gunners unit which has (again) been beset by injuries.

From the BBC:

Spaniard Lucas, 27, scored 17 goals in 37 games last season and Arsenal will meet a 20m euro (£17.1m) buyout clause.

Germany international Mustafi, 24, is set to join for a fee in excess of £35m.

Is this, coupled with the Granit Xhaka buy, enough to help Wenger right the ship? Mustafi, especially, would be a key piece. Perez is a bit of a lesser-known quality.

MLS Weekend Preview: Desperation mounts as rivals meet in Oregon

Portland Timbers defender Vytas Andriuskevicius, second from right, trips up Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, right, in the second half of a MLS soccer match, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016, in Seattle. Andriuskevicius was called for a foul on the play, and the Sounders' Clint Dempsey scored a goal on the resulting penalty kick. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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Desperation is up-and-down the schedule this weekend in Major League Soccer, as the playoff race really heats up.

The calendar turns to September next week, and teams will end this weekend with a clear view of their runs into the season’s final Sunday: Oct. 23.

[ MORE: Bundesliga season primer ]

The tumult that is an MLS season means only one team is more than two wins out of a playoff spot right now, and that’s Houston (7 points back of Western No. 6 Portland).

Here’s who is feeling the heat of their matches this weekend:

Portland and Seattle: The Cascadia Cup rivals tangle Sunday in Oregon, with the Timbers holding a one-point edge on the Sounders for the West’s final playoff spot. Seattle has played one fewer games than Portland, and a win on Sunday would be a double-whammy for PDX; The Timbers would be level on points with Seattle and Vancouver in the Cascadia Cup standings with just one match to go (compared to their opponents’ two).

Vancouver: The ‘Caps don’t have a Cup game this weekend, but will face an L.A. team which hasn’t lost at home. Vancouver is in real danger of moving more than one win behind in the fight for a playoff spot. If they lose to L.A. and both San Jose and Portland win, the Whitecaps will be five points back of a playoff spot. Of course, this being MLS, a win and help could see Vancouver in sixth when the smoke clears.

Columbus and New England: No one likes to comment on job status, but Revs’ boss Jay Heaps and his Columbus counterpart (Gregg Berhalter) have to be a bit concerned at this point. New England is a total mess, opening up a goalkeeping controversy, and is pinning its hopes on some Open Cup final karma. The Crew was supposed to contend for a title after last year’s final run, but is currently in the East’s cellar with just three home wins from 13 matches.

Schedule

Friday
Colorado at Real Salt Lake — 8 p.m. EDT

Saturday
Chicago at DC United — 7 p.m. EDT
Sporting KC at Philadelphia — 7 p.m. EDT
San Jose at Columbus — 7:30 p.m. EDT
Montreal at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. EDT
FC Dallas at Houston — 9 p.m. EDT
Vancouver at LA Galaxy — 10:30 p.m. EDT

Sunday
New England at New York Red Bulls — 2:30 p.m. EDT
Seattle at Portland — 5 p.m. EDT
New York City at Orlando City — 7 p.m. EDT