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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.

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

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Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET

Alex Ferguson praises Mourinho as Man Utd boss

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 13:  Head Coach Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid and Manager Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United look on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester United at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on February 13, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Four years ago, Alex Ferguson stepped down as Manchester United manager with a fitting finish as Premier League champion.

The legendary manager has since watched hand-picked successor David Moyes struggle for a season before Louis Van Gaal hit similar managerial speed bumps over campaigns.

Now Jose Mourinho is in charge of Manchester United, and Ferguson is… pretty happy with the guy.

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Mourinho has United in sixth place, four points out of fourth and 14 back of pack leaders Chelsea. Ferguson sees a few too many draws in the bunch, but says the side is really coming along.

From the BBC:

“You can see he has got to grips with the club,” he said. “The team is playing really well and he has been very unlucky. He has had six 1-1 draws and in every game he has battered the opposition.

“If they hadn’t had all these draws, they would be there challenging Chelsea. That is the unfortunate part but he is going to have to live with that.”

Ferguson also spoke about new club record scorer Wayne Rooney and how Mourinho has settled down on the touchline, a feature he thinks has filtered down to the players onto the field.

One week left: Transfer needs for each Premier League team

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 28:  Virgil van Dijk of Southampton celebrates as he scores their first goal during the Premier League match between Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur at St Mary's Stadium on December 28, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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This time next week the January transfer window will be set to close.

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The next seven days could see plenty of teams scrambling around frantically to sign new players, but so far it has been a quiet month across the Premier League in terms of transfers.

A new trend? The calm before the storm? However it ends up, here’s a look at what each PL team needs in the final week of the window.


Arsenal: None – Yep, they really need nothing. With long-term absentees Per Mertesacker and Danny Welbeck returning, Arsene Wenger looks set. It will be a quiet week for Arsenal. Well, expect for the impending touchline ban for Wenger and Granit Xhaka potentially being in all kinds of trouble.

Bournemouth: Striker, center back, goalkeeper – After losing Nathan Ake (his loan from Chelsea was terminated early) Eddie Howe has a large whole in his defense. Conceding eight goals in the last three games suggests that. Asmir Begovic could be arriving from Chelsea to boost the goalkeeping position significantly, while an experienced striker up top may help steer the Cherries away from any relegation danger.

Burnley: Center back, winger – If Ben Mee or Michael Keane go down injured, you worry about the drop off for the stingy Clarets. Also, another creative tricky winger would be a great pick up. Andre Gray and Sam Vokes can score in the PL but imagine what they could do with more chances presented to them?

Chelsea: Striker – Diego Costa is running the show and Michy Batshuayi is an able deputy but some experience would be great in position. It seems like Fernando Llorente will be remaining at Swansea City for now, so could Antonio Conte will have to get creative to bring in a short-term solution to help ease the pressure on Costa.

Crystal Palace: Center back, full back – Basically, as many defenders as they can get. Sam Allardyce hopes to sign Patrick Van Aanholt from Sunderland which shores up the left back area, but two new center backs wouldn’t go amiss.

Everton: Winger – Ronald Koeman has done his best early with Morgan Schneiderlin and Ademola Lookman arriving. That’s good but with Gerard Deulofeu leaving, perhaps a new winger could arrive, especially with Yannick Bolasie now a long-term absentee.

Hull City: Everywhere – Look, Hull has an honest squad of hardworking players but they need more quality. New manager Marco Silva has already brought in Evandro, Lazar MarkovicOmar ElabdellaouiOumar Niasse and signed Markus Henriksen permanently in January. One more striker and a winger would improve the Tigers’ chances of being successful in their battle against relegation.

Leicester City: Center backs – Wes Morgan and Robert Huth have been all over the place and Claudio Ranieri needs some PL quality defenders to steady the ship. Simply put, Leicester need to stop conceding goals early and new defenders may help with that.

Liverpool: None – Apart from maybe a new center back, the Reds are in very good shape and if anything they have too many options in midfield and up top. Long-term, getting a new left back will be a priority alongside a new center back.

Manchester City: Center backs – A long time need which probably won’t be fixed in January, Pep Guardiola needs to improve his defense. Virgil Van Dijk would be an absolutely perfect fit.

Manchester United: None – Like Arsenal and Liverpool, the main issue with United is that they have too many players around. Jose Mourinho likes a small squad. Don’t expect much action but they could do with a new center back in the summer. Along with Liverpool and City, another club van Dijk would be a great buy for…

Middlesbrough: Strikers – Aitor Karanka needs a couple of new strikers or any kind of attacking talent which can improve their chances of staying up. Traore, Ramirez and Negredo are dangerous when they’re on form but that’s not too often.

Southampton: Striker, center back – Saints continue to struggle to score goals but with Charlie Austin potentially returning in early March, they may stick with Shane Long and Jay Rodriguez. Mamadou Sakho could be an option at center back after Jose Fonte left for West Ham.

Stoke City: None – Stoke addressed their biggest need already by signing striker Saido Berahino. Finally they have a “fox in the box” who can finish the chances Shaqiri, Arnautovic and Co. create.

Sunderland: Everywhere – David Moyes needs big help. Help for Jermain Defoe up top is key so he needs some strikers. In defender they’ve added Joleon Lescott, but extra quality in central midfield would be helpful in the run-in. Khazri and Ndong will return from AFCON but injuries have not been kind for the Black Cats. Moyes doesn’t have much money to spend but Robbie Keane on a short-term deal sounds intriguing…

Swansea City: Striker – Fernando Llorente can’t do it all on his own, so the Swans need to add one more body up top. Adding Tom Carroll, Martin Olsson and Luciano Narsingh so far in January will prove to be shrewd business.

Tottenham Hotspur: Striker – Vincent Janssen just hasn’t worked the Premier League out. Pochettino needs some help for Harry Kane with a busy few months coming up in Europe, the PL and in the FA Cup. Defensive injuries are a concern but Spurs have sufficient backups.

Watford: Playmaker – Walter Mazzarri‘s side have plenty of numbers in midfield (they’ve already added Tom Cleverley) and defense, plus options up top with Deeney, Ighalo and Okaka, but they’re lacking quality in that key playmaking area. Having a classy No.10 behind Deeney and Okaka would be a joy to watch.

West Bromwich Albion: Striker – Like so many teams, West Brom could do with an experienced forward. They finally sold Berahino to Stoke so now there’s a spot open. Pulis will no doubt be sat by the phone with his baseball cap on as the deadline nears next Tuesday…

West Ham United: Playmaker – Depending on whether or not Dimitri Payet leaves for Marseille, West Ham must have another playmaker lined up to arrive if their star man does depart. Fonte was a key addition to bolster their backline. Hammers looked okay apart from the Payet saga.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Pinamonti to Tottenham; Krul to Chelsea

MILAN, ITALY - DECEMBER 08:  Andrea Pinamonti of FC Internazionale in action during the UEFA Europa League match between FC Internazionale Milano and AC Sparta Praha at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on December 8, 2016 in Milan, .  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Tottenham have been linked with a move for Inter Milan striker Andre Pinamonti.

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Italian outlet CalicoMercato states that both Spurs and Chelsea want to sign the 18-year-old who has scored 14 goals in Italy’s third-tier this season.

Pinamonti’s chances of breaking through at Inter appear slim with Mauro Icardi and Gabriel Barbosa in his way and per the report Tottenham met with his agent Marco De Marchi to discuss his future plus if Spurs could bid for another one of his clients, Inter defender Andrea Ranocchia.

For Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, he needs some new talent up to with Vincen Janssen struggling to fit in at White Hart Lane and if Harry Kane goes down the only other option is Heung-Min Son who can slot in up top. Plus, Pochettino seems to know young players at Inter rather well as he took Philippe Coutinho on loan during his time in charge of Espanyol and came very close to signing him when he was manager of Southampton.

As for Chelsea, they have a model of snapping up the best young talent around the world and then loaning them out around Europe. Is Pinamonti the latest to go down this route?


Chelsea could move for Newcastle United goalkeeper Tim Krul to replace Asmir Begovic, the Guardian suggests.

Bosnian international Begovic, 29, is the subject  of a $12.4 million bid from Bournemouth and he’d be the first-choice goalkeeper for the Cherries ahead of Artur Boruc and Adam Federici. However, it is believed Chelsea want to bring in a capable back up for first-choice Thibaut Courtois before allowing Begovic, who joined from Stoke City in the summer of 2015, to leave to play regularly.

Newcastle’s Krul is currently on a season-long loan at Ajax but hasn’t play for the Dutch club so maybe a move to the PL champions elect would suit everyone. Let’s wait and see as Chelsea gets everything in order to allow Begovic to leave in January.


According to the Guardian Crystal Palace are closing in on a $15 million move for Sunderland left back Patrick Van Aanholt.

The Dutch defender, 26, played for Sam Allardyce last season and has scored four goals from left back as the Black Cats currently sit bottom of the table and three points off safety. Things aren’t much better at Palace though with the Eagles in the bottom three and two points off safety. If PVA does arrive, he’d be returning to London after his time at Chelsea. With Pape Souare out long-term following his car crash in September, this signing means Allardyce would vastly improve his defense which is now the fourth-worst in terms of conceding goals in the PL.

That kind of defensive record won’t fly with Big Sam but why would Sunderland sell van Aanholt? After Jermain Defoe he’s probably their biggest goal threat and most solid performer but David Moyes adding veteran Joleon Lescott (who can play at center back and left back) is probably a big indicator that an outgoing is coming up at the Stadium of Light. With owner Ellis Short putting Sunderland up for sale, it looks like Moyes will continue this relegation battle with one arm tied behind his back in terms of finances and also without PVA.


Sticking with Sunderland to finish things up, the Daily Express suggests Robbie Keane could be heading to the Stadium of Light.

Keane, 35, left LA Galaxy at the end of the 2016 MLS season after a wonderfully successful five years in California. Speaking to Sky Sports in the UK, Keane intimated that he will make a short-term move to a team in England before assessing his options. Cash-strapped Sunderland are looking to cut costs wherever they can and adding Keane’s experience for a relegation scrap could help them out massively.

This seems like a long shot, but stranger things have happened…