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.

Schalke wins 2-0 at Leverkusen to move 3rd in Bundesliga

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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BERLIN (AP) Nabil Bentaleb‘s late penalty sealed a 2-0 win for Schalke at 10-man Bayer Leverkusen, lifting his team to third in the Bundesliga on Sunday.

Leverkusen was left to rue Dominik Kohr’s sending off in the first half as the home side missed the chance to go second and instead dropped to fifth, outside the Champions League qualification places.

[ MORE: Man City 3-1 Arsenal | 3 things ]

Guido Burgstaller fired the visitors into an early lead after a long ball over the top from Daniel Caligiuri. The Schalke forward did well to lift the ball over Leverkusen defender Panagiotis Retsos before dispatching past goalkeeper Bernd Leon inside the left post.

Leon Bailey came very close to equalizing with Leverkusen’s best chance of the half, but the hosts took a hit shortly before the break when Kohr was sent off with his second yellow card for a late tackle, minutes after earning his first for the same.

Leverkusen coach Heiko Herrlich brought on Argentine forward Lucas Alario after the break, and then went all out with two more forwards, Stefan Kiessling and Karim Bellarabi, for the closing stages.

However, the best chance fell to Schalke’s Breel Embolo, denied by a brilliant reflex save from Leno.

Retsos brought down Embolo in the penalty area, allowing Bentaleb to seal the win from the spot in the 89th minute.

Leipzig had the chance to go second later Sunday with a win over last-place Cologne.

Kompany felt he’d score, relishes League Cup win after injury troubles

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Vincent Kompany turned in a Man of the Match performance as Manchester City dominated Arsenal to win the League Cup Final by a 3-0 margin on Sunday at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

Kompany redirected a goal for City’s second of the day, and had a number of key interventions as he bottled up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The 31-year-old center back has been through the ringer in recent years, with injuries haunting his seasons. Kompany now has three League Cups, an FA Cup, and two Premier League crowns. From the BBC:

“It was a difficult game, but as much space there was for us and Arsenal, we did well and controlled the space and I am proud of the team. Winning 3-0 at Wembley is a massive result against any opponent.

“Before the game, I thought I was going to score. I came close during the game so there was some luck on the day, but also self-belief.

“I have been in the game for 15 years and I have been training well and supporting the lads when I don’t play. When I get the call I want to do the job.”

Three things learned: City win League Cup

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LONDON — Manchester City breezed past Arsenal 3-0 in the League Cup final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, as Pep Guardiola won the first piece of silverware in England.

A first half goal from Sergio Aguero put City ahead and then they stepped on the accelerator in the second half with goals from Vincent Kompany and David Silva doing the damage to clinch a fifth League Cup for Man City.

Here’s what we learned from a one-sided final as the runaway Premier League leaders showed their class and won their first trophy for two years, since they won the League Cup in 2016.


KOMPANY DOMINATES AUBAMEYANG

In four of Man City’s last five domestic cup finals at Wembley, Vincent Kompany has been instrumental in their success. Many believed Kompany would be the Achilles heel for City in this final as he came up against the languid and elusive figure of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Kompany probably hasn’t let Aubameyang out of his back pocket just yet…

The Belgian skipper has now led City to success in three League Cup finals, while winning one FA Cup in 2011 and losing the final in 2013 to Wigan. Across those five finals who has played the full 90 minutes on each occasion and has led by example with City conceding just three goals across the five games and he was named Man of the Match in the penalty shootout victory over Liverpool in 2016.

Kompany, 31, put in a dominant defensive display on Sunday with one moment in the first half summing up his renewed fitness and showed a glimpse of his past dominance. Aubameyang raced clear on goal, taking a decent first touch to move into the penalty box but Kompany came across and cleanly gained possession as a roar of approval reined down from Man City’s supporters from behind the goal.

At the start of the second half Kompany smashed a shot towards goal which deflected just wide as he sunk to his knees and looked to the heavens. Later on he raced clear down the right wing after a free kick, dribbled past two defenders and then won a corner as he was serenaded by their fans. From that corner he tapped home Ilkay Gundogan‘s shot as he jumped in with the fans to celebrate in style.

So many stars have come and gone since Kompany signed for City in 2008 just ahead of Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of the club, but the sight of the Belgium skipper lifting a sixth trophy as City skipper will warm the hearts of City’s fans everywhere.


OLD-GUARD DELIVERS FOR GUARDIOLA

Pep Guardiola’s 13th trophy as a manager will possibly be one of his easiest.

The Spaniard failed to deliver silverware in his first season in charge of Man City and following their shocking FA Cup exit earlier this week at third-tier Wigan, the naysayers were having a field day.

13 points clear atop the table with a game in hand, Guardiola will win at least two trophies this season and they’re favorites to win the UEFA Champions League.

Sergio Aguero loves playing against Arsenal as he scored his fifth goal in as many games against the North London club. The Argentine notched his 30th goal of the season with a delicious lob early on, making the most of a mistake from Shkodran Mustafi, before Kompany popped up with the second and Silva delivered a killer third.

With Guardiola spending big in the past two years since he arrived in Manchester, three of the old guard delivered the goals which gave him his first piece of silverware.

Kompany, Silva and Aguero may not be around for much longer but Guardiola has them to thank for creating a smooth, successful transition for his all-conquering regime.


ARSENAL FINALLY CRUMBLE AT WEMBLEY

Wembley has been a happy hunting ground for Arsenal in recent years, winning three FA Cups in the last four seasons.

That caught up with Arsene Wenger‘s men on Sunday.

In truth Arsenal were outclassed by Man City in the second half as they hung with them in the first 45 minutes but had no answer when City came out flying in the second half.

The Gunners were lackluster in attack as Aubameyang was marshaled expertly, plus Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were all sloppy in possession. Defensively they looked shaky as Mustafi made a huge mistake, plus David Ospina hardly inspired confidence.

Overall, it was a woeful display from the Gunners who face Man City on Thursday in the Premier League.

There are 27 points between City and Arsenal in the Premier League table and another heavy defeat in four days could increase the pressure on Wenger further.

Man City cruises to League Cup title

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  • City wins fifth League Cup
  • Arsenal 2-6 in League Cup Finals
  • Kompany stars at both ends

Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany, and David Silva scored as Manchester City made itself a Wembley home with a 3-0 win over Arsenal in the League Cup Final on Sunday.

Pep Guardiola has his first major trophy as Manchester City boss, and Man City has now won the last three even-year League Cups (2014, 2016, 2018), while Arsene Wenger has yet to win a League Cup.

The two sides meet in the Premier League on Thursday at the Emirates Stadium.

[ MORE: Box score, lineups, play-by-play ]

Man City had a lot of the ball, but it was Arsenal who first properly challenged a keeper. Mesut Ozil’s cross was met before it got to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang by a sliding Kyle Walker, and Bravo had to act quickly to stop an own goal.

The Sky Blue side went direct to go ahead with Aguero’s 30th goal of the campaign. Aguero was behind his mark Shkrodan Mustafi but just onside by Nacho Monreal on the left as he ran onto Claudio Bravo‘s long kick and chipped David Ospina before the match was 19 minutes old.

Sead Kolasinac entered the match for injured Monreal in the 26th minute.

Aaron Ramsey was fortunate not to be sent off after catching David Silva with a high boot, and was only shown a yellow card.

Man City made a terrific physical tackle on Aubameyang in the 36th minute to win back a ball in the 18.

Fernandinho was given a yellow moments later, and Jack Wilshere nearly drew a second off Brazilian before halftime.

Magic-healing Leroy Sane curled a ball into Ospina’s hands before half, and Kevin De Bruyne won a free kick with plenty of potential in the 45th.

Could the below stat give Arsenal hope?

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Kompany got a cutback from Sane and saw his shot deflected out for a corner as Man City started the second half well.

Bravo came out to meet a long ball before Aubameyang and mishit it, but the Arsenal striker couldn’t capitalize on the error and fouled the Man City goalkeeper.

Kompany continued his fine match with a redirection of Aguero’s shot off a training ground corner kick started by De Bruyne.

Silva then bodied off Calum Chambers to meet a Danilo through ball and make it 3-0.