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.

Lukaku or Morata; who got the better deal?

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Romelu Lukaku or Alvaro Morata, who ya got?

[ MORE: Keys to Manchester derby in Houston ]

It’s one of the biggest questions swirling around after Chelsea agreed a $92 million fee with Real Madrid for striker Alvaro Morata on Wednesday, who has arrived in London and called Chelsea “the best club” for him.

He also admitted he has no idea how close he came to signing for Manchester United and Morata could have easily ended up at United and Lukaku at Chelsea, but the opposite is now true as both Premier League giants have acquired clinical strikers who will be the focal point of their respective attacks.

Both Morata and Lukaku have the potential to be the two best out-and-out strikers in the world for many years to come.

[ MORE: Lukaku promises goals for Man United

In terms of who got the better deal, financially both players will end up costing a very similar amount with the fee for Lukaku set to rise to $96.5 million and Morata’s fee just below that. Both players are 24 years of age, and both have very similar skill sets which is understandable given why both United and Chelsea went for them.

So, all square there.

In terms of Premier League experience Lukaku obviously had the edge with the Belgian now playing four full seasons in the PL, while Morata has only played in Spain and Italy. Lukaku is much more likely to hit the ground running as he knows what to expect and is settled in England.

That said, Morata’s experience in the UEFA Champions League is vastly superior to Lukaku’s and the Spanish international also has 13 trophies (including two UCL trophies) to his name already. Lukaku may have more experience in England, but Morata has more experience in elite club competitions and has scored crucial goals in title-winning seasons for both Real and Juve.

Looking at the way both of the players will fit into their teams, it’s difficult to argue that they’re not well suited to both the system and personnel around them.

Lukaku has had many seasons as a lone front man but he could play up top alongside Marcus Rashford which may actually benefit him with someone to work off of and a little more space for him to work in.

Morata will be a lone forward in Chelsea’s attack, but he is flexible and able to play out wide or drop a little deeper when needed and that will work well with Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian buzzing around in support. Both of these players are more than a target man but you’d have to say Morata appears to be the more creative with the ball at his feet, so he gets the edge.

How can we judge these deals on some kind of scale? Well, the goal tally at the end of the season for each striker will tell the story of who was the better signing. It’s as simple as that and both will be expected to score at least 15-20 goals in all competitions.

But I know you guys don’t like simple answers, so here’s a ranking on some of the key categories which may help us to answer which club spent their $90 million-plus better.

Finishing (out of 10)
Lukaku: 8
Morata: 9

Power
Lukaku: 9
Morata: 8

Pace 
Lukaku: 9
Morata: 8

Aerial ability
Lukaku: 8
Morata: 9

Hold-up play
Lukaku: 7
Morata: 8

Mentality
Lukaku: 7
Morata: 9

Total score
Morata: 51/60
Lukaku: 48/60

Monaco report clubs to FIFA over Kylian Mbappe contact

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AS Monaco are not happy at all.

Star striker Kylian Mbappe is wanted by every top club in the world with the 18-year-old bursting onto the scenes last season as he scored 26 goals in all competitions with Monaco winning Ligue 1 and reaching the UEFA Champions League semifinals.

The French champions released the following strongly-worded statement on Thursday after they’ve already sold Tiemoue Bakayoko to Chelsea, Bernando Silva to Manchester City and both Benjamin Mendy and Fabinho are being chased by Europe’s top clubs.

“AS Monaco regretfully notice that important European football clubs made contacts with Kylian Mbappe (and his entourage) without its authorization. AS Monaco want to remind to these clubs that such actions are contrary to the article 211 of the Administrative regulation of the French Football League (Ligue de Football Professionnel) and to the article 18.3 of the Regulation of the Status and the Transfer of the Players of FIFA.

“To put an end to this unacceptable situation, AS Monaco consider asking the French Football League (Ligue de Football Professionnel) and the FIFA to commit disciplinary procedures against clubs offenders.”

Reports state that Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City are among the clubs reported to FIFA.

Southampton had a similar situation earlier this summer where they made a complaint over the conduct of Liverpool with regards to their star defender and team captain Virgil Van Dijk. Liverpool ended up issuing a public apology and stated that would end their interest in the player.

The secret world of “tapping up” is now coming out into the open with serious sanctions potentially awaiting any parties found guilty of not following the proper procedures.

Who is “winning” the summer transfer window?

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With big-money deals being done all the time, let’s take a look at how each Premier League club have fared so far in the summer transfer window.

[ MORE: Latest PL transfer news ]

Some have been busier than others and with big deals for Alexandre Lacazette, Romelu Lukaku and now Alvaro Morata spicing things up, we are seeing huge sums flying around among the big boys.

Let’s analyze who is “winning” and “losing” so far this summer with six weeks to go until the window closes on August 31.


Winning

Everton – Seven new players, Rooney has returned and Lukaku cash spenty wisely on defense. More signings promised too.
Chelsea – Morata incoming, plus Bakayoko, Rudiger and Caballero strengthen the squad. Very good summer, so far, despite Costa.
Man City – Overpaid for Walker but have Ederson in goal and Danilo said to be on the way. Bernardo Silva a quality buy.
Bournemouth – Shrewd summer of spending for the Cherries: Begovic, Ake and Defoe arriving. Perfectly blend of youth and experience.

Getting there

Man United – Lukaku and Lindelof were costly but just what they needed. If Matic arrives then Mourinho has had a good summer.
West Ham United – Hart and Zabaelta will bring experience. If they land Arnautovic and Chicharito then a very good window.
Liverpool – Salah will be a star, while Robertson and Solanke will contribute but getting a new center back in is a must.
Huddersfield Town – 10 new arrivals for the Terriers and some real quality in Mounie, Mooy and Williams. Need one or two more players.
Leicester – Iborra, Maguire and Jakupovic upgrades and Iheanacho on the way. Mahrez should only leave for the right price.
Burnley – Walters, Cork and Taylor all good additions, but just lacking a new center back.

Work to do

Stoke – Losing Arnautovic means Hughes must have some deals up his sleeve. Zouma and Delph likely to arrive. New striker a must.
Newcastle – Slow going for Rafael Benitez so far this summer. Murphy and Atsu have arrived in attack, but midfield is the problem area.
Crystal Palace – Loftus-Cheek a solid addition but Frank De Boer needs 2/3 quality additions to avoid a relegation scrap.
Brighton – Hughton is sticking to his budget but the Seagulls should look to add another striker and center mid. Ryan a good get.
Swansea Paul Clement is likely to lose Sigurdsson and with Llorente out injured, new attackers key. Bony to return?

Fine as things stand

Tottenham – After selling on Walker for big money, Spurs will look to invest it shrwedly. All about keeping hold of their stars.
Southampton – Same story for Saints who have added Bednarek in defense and sold Rodriguez. One more striker and defender key.
WatfordMarco Silva should be okay with what he has after adding Chalobah and Hughes in midfield. Replacement for Deeney up top?
West Brom – Rodriguez has slotted in well and Pulis has brought in Ghazi in defense. Solid summer so far and not much needed.
Arsenal – Alexandre Lacazette’s arrival is key, but Arsenal’s summer appears to hinge on the Sanchez and Ozil decision.

3 things to look for in the Manchester derby in Houston

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Manchester City and Manchester United square off in Houston, Texas on Thursday in what will be the first-ever Manchester derby played outside of the UK.

[ MORE: Daley Blind chat to JPW ]

This game is never a friendly but with it being a preseason match-up in the International Champions Cup, we may not see as many challenges flying as we usually do when Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola lock horns. Maybe…

It will also be an occasion for both clubs to pay tribute to the victims of the Manchester Bombing attack in May with both teams to display the “worker bee” logo on their shirts for the game.

Here’s a quick look at three intriguing storylines heading into the game.


New kids on the block

This will be our first chance to see Kyle Walker, Ederson and Bernardo Silva in Man City shirts as Pep’s team kick off their preseason games. Walker is a big upgrade on City’s previous full back options and his pace and power will give them a new dynamic and balance. Ederson is now the go-to goalkeeper for Guardiola, even though he said Claudio Bravo will stick around and Bernando Silva is a true luxury player capable of slotting in wherever needed in attack. All three will have plenty to prove with big price-tags hanging around their necks, but perhaps Ederson is the most intriguing because the goalkeeper position has been a huge problem area for City and we know what to expect from Walker and Silva. First impressions can shape your future at a club and Ederson will be well aware of that.

Kompany vs. Lukaku

One big man against another, there’s no love lost between Belgium teammates Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku. This battle will set the tone for the upcoming clashes this season and it is a pivotal one. Kompany can handle Lukaku’s power and aerial ability, but can he handle his pace in-behind? If United can set Lukaku free, there are still doubts over Kompany’s fitness and if the 31-year-old has lost a yard of pace over the years. A supreme defender, Kompany knows this is a massive year for him to stay fit as he will try to lead City to PL glory and then Belgium to World Cup glory next summer with Lukaku by his side. On Thursday in Houston it should be a titanic battle if they come up against one another.

3-4-3 system from United?

I spoke with Man United’s utility man Daley Blind earlier this week and he told me that preparations for a 3-4-3 system is going well. When this alternate formation is deployed, Blind will likely slot in as the left-sided center back with Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof alongside him. Mourinho usually keeps it simple and plays a 4-2-3-1 formation, but now is the time to experiment and given the recent success of teams playing with wing-backs (Chelsea for most of last season, then Spurs and Arsenal towards the end) why not see if his team can do it?

United have been working on it in training and have already played that way against LA Galaxy in preseason. With United’s fans urging them to be more attack-minded, maybe Mourinho, like Wenger, could change his ways. If United do play wing-backs it will be interesting to see how City’s attackers cope with having to track back and having players in the space they’d usually roam free in.