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.

Tactics Session: Inside the mind of Kevin De Bruyne

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If not for Harry Kane‘s prolific scoring of goals during the early days of this season, Kevin De Bruyne would almost certainly be the early runaway favorite for 2017-18 Premier League Player of the Season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup | Sunday preview — Spurs vs. Liverpool ]

Alas, Kane, the one-season wonder that he is, seems hellbent on cracking the century mark in the PL this season, rather than waiting until 2018-19. This sets up what should be a thoroughly exhilarating seven-month battle between two polar opposite players — Kane, the goalscorer; and De Bruyne, the assist machine.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle delved into the mind of De Bruyne (above video) in light of last weekend’s 7-2 thrashing of Stoke City, during which De Bruyne notched another pair of assists to take season tally to five through eight games. Later on Saturday, De Bruyne added another in Man City’s 3-0 victory over Burnley.

[ MORE: Matchday experience — behind the scenes at Southampton ]

The first thing pointed out by Earle is the recovery — though deployed as more of a central midfielder on the day, De Bruyne sits wide with City in possession high up the field, just waiting for the opportune moment to surge forward and join the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero (now that he’s back from injury). When Jesus’ ball is too lightly weighted, De Bruyne reacts quickest to make the recovery.

From there, his head is up and scanning the entire field. One touch forward, and he’s already accounted for the positioning of each of his teammates, as well as the Stoke defenders, and every pocket of space into which he’ll either carry or play the ball. He knows the precise spot on the field he must get to in order to pull the defense to him, thus opening the necessary space (and time) for the final man — Sane, in this instance — to make his run in behind.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

This is the part of De Bruyne’s game which he does better than anyone else in the world right now; no one can hold a candle KDB’s timing and vision — not Henrikh Mkhitaryan, not Isco, not Mesut Ozil, not even his brilliant teammate (and fellow six-assist man) David Silva. He’s almost operating at peak-Andres Iniesta level right now, which makes KDB and Co. appointment viewing every weekend.

Even now, after creating the passing lane and providing Sane the extra half-second to get level with his man before accelerating past in the blink of an eye. Even then, having seen the pass he has to play, there’s still the (major) matter of threading the needle through and around four defenders. On this occasion, the perfect pass is nearly 15 yards in front of Sane, and far less than that distance in front of the goalkeeper. An inch or two too short, it’s cleared by the right back; and inch or two too long, and the goalkeeper collects it easily.

As usual, no player in the world comes close to matching De Bruyne’s genius.

PL Sunday preview: Spurs take on bogey Reds; Everton vs. Arsenal

Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images
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Every club in the world has a bogey team (or teams) that no matter what they try, no matter the circumstances, it always seems to go sideways when they meet — a side that everyone associated with the club dreads when they see their name on the upcoming schedule.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man United shocked by Huddersfield; City, Chelsea win ]

For Tottenham Hotspur, the thorn currently in their side is Liverpool, who they’ll host at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, following Arsenal’s seasonal trip to Goodison Park to take on Everton.

Everton vs. Arsenal — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After starting the 2017-18 Premier League season with just two wins from eight games, every game could very well be Ronald Koeman‘s last game in charge of Everton, thus a visit from top-four-chasing Arsenal is anything but well-timed for the distressed Dutchman. What’s worse, the Toffees are also without a win in their last four games (all competitions) and on the verge of crashing out of the Europa League group stage.

“The performance was under level in the first half,” Koeman said following Thursday’s home defeat to Lyon. “We made a lot of mistakes, and the team played with a lot of doubts and little confidence. It’s very difficult (to reach the next stage). Most of the time you get your points at home but we have only got one out of the two we have had at Goodison. Nothing is impossible, but to gain more points — and I think we need six or seven — we need to improve the level and that is more important.”

Sounds similar to their league performances, strangely enough — Everton currently sit 16th in the PL table, mere months after spending in excess of $200 million during the summer transfer window.

European competition has treated Arsenal far better this season, as Arsene Wenger‘s side is three-for-three in the Europa League following Thursday’s win away to Red Star Belgrade. A number of key figures — Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette, Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny, to name a few — were left in London, as a reserve- and youth-heavy side got the job done courtesy of an Olivier Giroud goal five minutes before full-time.

Still, the Gunners are in desperate need of a quick rebound following last weekend’s late defeat to Watford, after which Watford captain Troy Deeney publicly characterized the Arsenal players as mentally weak and said they lack the necessary “cojones” to compete at this level. On the bright side, Deeney’s 71st-minute equalizer (from the penalty spot) was the first goal Arsenal had conceded in 444 minutes in the PL, a streak they’ll look to start anew and build off Thursday’s win in Serbia.

INJURIES: Everton — OUT: Ross Barkley (back), Morgan Schneiderlin (knock), Ramiro Funes Mori (knee), Seamus Coleman (leg), James McCarthy (fitness), Yannick Bolasie (knee) | Arsenal — OUT: Danny Welbeck (hamstring), Shkodran Mustafi (thigh), Calum Chambers (hip), Santi Cazorla (achilles)

[ MORE: Mourinho — “We deserved the punishment of defeat” to Huddersfield ]

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Mauricio Pochettino has never beaten Liverpool in six tries as Tottenham manager (two triumphs in his 18 months at Southampton); in fact, Spurs themselves haven’t beaten Liverpool in the PL since Nov. 28, 2012 (three draws and six defeats in nine tries) — the north London side’s truest bogey club this decade. Having already fallen eight points behind leaders Manchester City, Pochettino’s side will have to clear that mental hurdle on Saturday if they’re to go on and challenge for the PL title for a third straight season. On the other hand, they’re unbeaten in 10 games (seven wins) across all competitions.

Fortunately for Spurs, the Wembley monkey is off their back after narrowly edging past Bournemouth their last time out at home. Harry Kane is without goal in his last 241 minutes for club (two for England during the last international break), which is practically an eternity after scoring seven goals in the previous 188 minutes.

As for Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp‘s side enters Sunday’s clash mired in a month-long slump, having won just one of their last four league games, and just two of their last nine in all competitions. A major part of the problem is more of the poor defending that dogged the Reds last season, but perhaps they’ve been a bit unfortunate as well.

“We had bad luck in the last three or four games,” summer signing Mohamed Salah said this week. “Everyone was confident a good result was coming.”

The tough stretch has seen Klopp somewhat recalibrate his expectations in the direction of reality, dubbing his side the “challenger” when they take on Tottenham.

“(Spurs) are in a really good moment as a club and we are the challenger when we go there, that’s how it is,” he said this week. “But they know it will not be an easy game, so good, let’s play and let’s see what happens.”

INJURIES: Tottenham — OUT: Mousa Dembele (foot), Victor Wanyama (knee), Danny Rose (fitness), Erik Lamela (hip) | Liverpool — OUT: Sadio Mane (hamstring), Adam Lallana (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (hamstring)

PL Roundup: City separation; Stunning goal show (video)

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From Pedro‘s pipe cleaner to Boufal’s wondrous solo march, the Premier League’s day started and ended with glorious goals.

[ SUNDAY PREVIEW: Spurs face bogey reds; Everton vs. Arsenal (streams) ]

Manchester United lost for the first time this season along the way, one a few notable score lines on Saturday in the United Kingdom.

[ MORE: Bundesliga wrap ]


Southampton 1-0 West Bromwich AlbionRECAP

Tony Pulis tried to park the bus, but Sofiane Boufal is a stunt driver. Southampton found a winner late at home to move into the top half.

Huddersfield Town 2-1 Manchester UnitedRECAP

It had been 65 years since Town beat Manchester United, and the way it looked Saturday it won’t be that long before it happens again. Maybe United was beat from the UEFA Champions League midweek, or just wasn’t prepared to answer the bell, but goals from Aaron Mooy and Laurent Depoitre gave Town a 2-0 lead before Marcus Rashford provided for a tighter ending.

Manchester City 3-0 BurnleyRECAP

United’s neighbors took advantage of their loss, as Sergio Aguero converted a penalty before Nicolas Otamendi and Leroy Sane barged down the door and carried all three points with ease.

Swansea City 1-2 Leicester CityRECAP

A Federico Fernandez own goal gave interim manager Michael Appleton an early lead, and red-hot Shinji Okazaki made it 2-0 just after halftime. Alfie Mawson pulled one back for Swans, but that was all she wrote: Leicester had leapt out of the drop zone, and ahead of its hosts.

Newcastle United 1-0 Crystal PalaceRECAP

Rafa Benitez‘s men might’ve been second-best over 90 minutes to Roy Hodgson’s Eagles, but it was a Matt Ritchie corner kick to the noggin of Mikel Merino that did the trick and lifted Newcastle sixth before Sunday’s matches.

Stoke City 1-2 BournemouthRECAP

Mame Biram Diouf’s pull back was not joined by another Stoke goal, as an Andrew Surman goal and Junior Stanislas penalty kick combined to give the Cherries a notable win at the Potteries. Bournemouth is now just one point back of four teams with eight points, including 18th place Stoke.

Chelsea 4-2 WatfordRECAP

When Abdoulaye Doucoure canceled out Pedro’s fantastic 12th minute goal just before halftime, the Blues and Hornets went to the locker room with very different feelings. When Roberto Pereyra made it 2-1 Watford four minutes into the second, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte was desperate. Fortunately, super sub Michy Batshuayi scored a brace wrapped around Cesar Azpilicueta’s 87th minute marker to give Chelsea a big win after its midweek draw with Roma in the UEFA Champions League.

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Manchester City 9 8 1 0 32 4 28 4-1-0 4-0-0 25
 Manchester United 9 6 2 1 22 4 18 4-0-0 2-2-1 20
 Tottenham Hotspur 8 5 2 1 15 5 10 1-2-1 4-0-0 17
 Chelsea 9 5 1 3 17 10 7 2-1-2 3-0-1 16
 Watford 9 4 3 2 15 17 -2 1-2-1 3-1-1 15
 Newcastle United 9 4 2 3 10 8 2 3-1-1 1-1-2 14
 Arsenal 8 4 1 3 12 10 2 4-0-0 0-1-3 13
 Liverpool 8 3 4 1 13 12 1 2-2-0 1-2-1 13
 Burnley 9 3 4 2 8 9 -1 1-2-1 2-2-1 13
 Southampton 9 3 3 3 8 9 -1 2-2-2 1-1-1 12
 Huddersfield Town 9 3 3 3 7 10 -3 2-2-1 1-1-2 12
 Brighton & Hove Albion 9 3 2 4 9 10 -1 2-1-1 1-1-3 11
 West Bromwich Albion 9 2 4 3 7 10 -3 1-3-0 1-1-3 10
 Leicester City 9 2 3 4 12 14 -2 1-1-2 1-2-2 9
 Swansea City 9 2 2 5 6 10 -4 1-0-4 1-2-1 8
 Everton 8 2 2 4 5 13 -8 2-0-2 0-2-2 8
 West Ham United 9 2 2 5 8 17 -9 2-0-2 0-2-3 8

 Stoke City 9 2 2 5 10 20 -10 2-1-2 0-1-3 8
 Bournemouth 9 2 1 6 6 13 -7 1-1-2 1-0-4 7
 Crystal Palace 9 1 0 8 2 19 -17 1-0-3 0-0-5 3

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern, BVB level on points; USMNT’s Johnson scores

Marius Becker/dpa via AP
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Borussia Dortmund’s dominant start to the season is no more, and new Bayern Munich boss Jupp Heynckes has his side very much in the race for yet another Bundesliga crown.

[ MORE: LFC prospects buries U.S. ]


Hamburg 0-1 Bayern Munich

Strikers Bobby Wood (Hamburg) and Robert Lewandowski (Bayern) were frustrated, combining for just 47 touches, and it took a fittingly messy goal to separate the two. It came from French midfielder Corentin Tolisso and pulled Bayern level with leaders BVB on points, three goals back in differential.

Eintracht Frankfurt 2-2 Borussia Dortmund

BVB is, quite officially, in a bit of a funk. Nuri Sahin and Marvin Philipp gave the visitors a 2-0 lead, but Eintracht sprung for goals in the 64th and 68th minutes to deny the leaders more than a point. Christian Pulisic ran his socks off, as usual, with more than 11km covered, but will not look back on his 90 minutes fondly. It happens.

Borussia Monchengladbach 1-5 Bayer Leverkusen

American left winger Fabian Johnson buried a seventh minute goal… then watched the visitors put five of their six shots on target home for a gnarly home loss.

Elsewhere
Schalke 2-0 Mainz — Friday
RB Leipzig 1-0 Stuttgart
Augsburg 1-2 Hannover 96
Koln vs. Werder Bremen — 7:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Freiburg vs. Hertha Berlin — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Wolfsburg vs. Hoffenheim — Noon ET Sunday

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Borussia Dortmund 9 6 2 1 25 7 18 3-0-1 3-2-0 20
 Bayern Munich 9 6 2 1 22 7 15 3-1-0 3-1-1 20
 RB Leipzig 9 6 1 2 16 10 6 3-1-0 3-0-2 19
 FC Schalke 04 9 5 1 3 12 9 3 3-1-1 2-0-2 16
 1899 Hoffenheim 8 4 3 1 15 10 5 3-2-0 1-1-1 15
 Hannover 96 9 4 3 2 10 7 3 2-1-1 2-2-1 15
 Eintracht Frankfurt 9 4 2 3 10 9 1 1-1-2 3-1-1 14
 Mönchengladbach 9 4 2 3 13 17 -4 3-0-2 1-2-1 14
 Bayer Leverkusen 9 3 3 3 20 14 6 2-2-0 1-1-3 12
 FC Augsburg 9 3 3 3 12 10 2 2-1-2 1-2-1 12
 FSV Mainz 05 9 3 1 5 10 15 -5 3-0-2 0-1-3 10
 VfB Stuttgart 9 3 1 5 6 11 -5 3-1-0 0-0-5 10
 Hertha BSC Berlin 8 2 3 3 8 10 -2 2-2-1 0-1-2 9
 VfL Wolfsburg 8 1 5 2 8 11 -3 0-3-1 1-2-1 8
 Hamburger SV 9 2 1 6 6 15 -9 1-1-3 1-0-3 7
 SC Freiburg 8 1 4 3 5 16 -11 1-3-0 0-1-3 7
 Werder Bremen 8 0 4 4 3 9 -6 0-1-3 0-3-1 4
 1. FC Köln 8 0 1 7 3 17 -14 0-0-3 0-1-4 1