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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.

Report: Ronaldo, Mourinho involved in massive tax evasion system

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 19:  Head Coach Jose Mourinho (R) of Real Madrid instructs Cristiano Ronaldo during the UEFA Champions League group G match between Real Madrid and AC Milan at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 19, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
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Wikileaks findings played a massive role in this year’s presidential election, and now “Football Leaks” could produce potentially damaging news regarding some of the world’s greatest soccer players.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines heading into the weekend ]

According to information obtained by various European media outlets, Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho are at the heart of a multi-million dollar tax evasion ring.

[ MORE: Who’s more important? Diego Costa or Sergio Aguero? ]

German outlet Der Spiegel is reporting that Ronaldo could have hidden as much as”hidden 150 million euros (roughly $160 million) in tax havens in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands.”

Jorge Mendes, who serves as an agent for both Ronaldo, Mourinho and various other major soccer stars, is considered to have played a key role in the alleged wrongdoing.

Mendes reportedly helped Ronaldo and Mourinho conceal money in various offshore accounts, including in Switzerland, Panama and the British Virgin Islands.

In total, the alleged system implemented by Mendes amounted to a loss of “at least 185 million euros (roughly $197 million) of sponsorship income from the tax administrations.”

As more details emerge, follow PST for all the latest information.

Atlanta United adds U.S. U-19 forward Brandon Vasquez

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 07:  (L-R) Former professional soccer player Carlos Bocanegra, MLS Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, rapper Ludacris, Commissioner of MLS Don Garber, and former professional soccer player Darren Eales attend the MLS Atlanta Launch Event at SOHO on July 7, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for MLS Atlanta)
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As their entrance into Major League Soccer continues to draw closer and closer, Atlanta United keeps on adding young talent to its roster.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The 2017 Eastern Conference expansion side announced on Friday that they have signed U.S. Under-19 national team forward Brandon Vasquez after Atlanta claimed Vasquez as a discovery signing.

The 18-year-old joins Atlanta from Liga MX side Club Tijuana, while also having represented the United States at various levels of its youth setup. Vasquez played a key role in the U.S. U-17 national team during the 2015 World Cup, scoring two of the team’s three goals during the competition.

This year, Vasquez has bagged four goals in 2016 for the U-19 side.

Including Friday’s addition of Vasquez, Atlanta has now officially signed nine players to its MLS squad. Both expansion sides Atlanta and Minnesota United will have the opportunity to further their teams during the upcoming MLS Expansion Draft, which will take place on December 13.

Premier League Preview: Tottenham vs. Swansea City

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 28: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur takes on Angel Rangel of Swansea City during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea City at White Hart Lane on February 28, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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  • Spurs had unbeaten run ended last Saturday against Chelsea
  • Tottenham has never lost to Swansea in PL (8 wins, 2 draws)
  • Swans have kept two clean sheets in first 13 matches

Tottenham looks to rebound from its first loss of the Premier League campaign on Saturday when the London side hosts Swansea City (10 a.m. ET, NBCSN and streaming via NBC Sports Live) from White Hart Lane.

For the first time in the PL this season, Tottenham has been defeated. Now, Mauricio Pochettino‘s side must quickly look past their road defeat against Chelsea and focus on Swansea City, who have taken points in back-to-back matches for the first time in 2016.

[ MORE: Kane signs new Spurs deal, ends Man United speculation ]

Spurs have now lost three of their last five matches across all competitions, and anything other than a win on Saturday against one of the league’s bottom sides could prove to be damaging to the club’s title aspirations. Tottenham currently sits fifth in the table on 24 points, already seven points off the pace set by league leaders Chelsea.

Last weekend’s 5-4 win for Swansea gave manager Bob Bradley his first win since joining the PL side, however, the Swans have much to do if they want to continue their success in England’s top flight.

Swansea sits firmly in the early relegation battle after taking just nine points out of their opening 13 fixtures. Despite facing a stiff test upcoming against Spurs, Bradley and co. should be looking to take advantage of the schedule that lies ahead, including matches against bottom-half sides Sunderland, Middlesbrough and West Ham all before the start of 2017.

What they’re saying

Mauricio Pochettino on Tottenham rebounding after Chelsea defeat: “Against Chelsea we lost but we recovered the feeling that we can play well. This week has been perfect because we could spend time together and train hard. We held a lot of meetings and the answer from the players was fantastic.”

Bob Bradley on Swansea’s thrilling victory over Crystal Palace“Last week was positive, but a stretch of good performances and results changes the conversation in a better way. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But it is a real opportunity to go there, play our football. We have reminded the players of some of the things we will be up against, but what is more important is who we are, how we play and our mentality. We must never let the opponent take away from our confidence in our game.”

Prediction

The Swans will be riding in hot following last weekend’s historic and thrilling win against Crystal Palace, but Bradley’s side will face a hungry Spurs club looking to bounce back from their first defeat of 2016. It would be nice to see Bradley and co. build off of the impressive win but Spurs have proven to be a force at home under Mauricio Pochettino. Tottenham’s only two losses at home this season have come against Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League, and I expect Spurs to get back on the winning side of things on Saturday. Tottenham 3-1 Swansea

Messi looking to end El Clasico scoring drought

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 02:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during a training session ahead of their La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid on December 2, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) There couldn’t be a better time for Lionel Messi to end his scoring drought than in the clasico against Real Madrid.

With Barcelona struggling and desperately needing a victory to stay close to its rival in the Spanish league, Messi could help turn things around on Saturday if he can find the net again after five scoreless games against Madrid.

Barcelona enters the home game at Camp Nou six points behind Madrid, and another setback could leave it in a difficult position to fight for a third straight league title.

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Messi hasn’t played badly in recent clasicos, but his last goal against Madrid came almost three years ago when he had a hat trick in a 4-3 win at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

He hasn’t scored in the four games since, not even in the stunning 4-0 win at the Bernabeu last season, when Messi came off the bench in the second half after a long injury layoff. Barcelona has won two of the last five games against Madrid, but it’s been 400 minutes since Messi last scored.

Since that hat trick in March 2014, Cristiano Ronaldo has attracted most of the headlines in the clasico, having scored three times, including the late game-winner at Camp Nou last season that ended Barcelona’s record 39-game unbeaten streak.

“They’re two exceptional players,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “Cristiano is doing exceptional, incredible things, I hope he carries on like this.”

Messi remains the all-time leading scorer in the clasico with 21 in 32 matches, but at Camp Nou it’s been Ronaldo who has thrived the most.

He has 10 goals in 12 games in Barcelona, including five in the last five matches and eight in the last nine. He failed to find the net only in four of those 12 games. Messi netted only five times in those same 12 encounters in Catalonia.

Ronaldo has scored in each of the last two league games between them at the Camp Nou. He has 16 goals in 25 clasicos, behind only Messi (21) and Alfredo Di Stefano (18).

[ MORE: Birnbaum spurns Europe for DC United ]

Messi has 15 goals in the 25 clasicos in which he and Ronaldo faced each other.

Ronaldo, who recently netted a hat trick in the Madrid derby against Atletico, is the Spanish league leading scorer with 10, one more than Messi. Ronaldo has eight goals in his last four league matches.

Messi also has been playing well recently, having scored five goals in his last four games. He has netted 16 in his last 11 matches.

Barcelona is coming off three consecutive draws, two in the league and one in the Copa del Rey.

Madrid is enjoying a 32-game unbeaten streak under Zidane.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni