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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.

AEK Athens beats Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) AEK Athens defeated Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0 in an ill-tempered game on Sunday that saw 12 yellow cards and two dismissals.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win of season ]

Astrit Ajdarevic scored the only goal in the 34th minute with a free kick that deflected off Olympiakos defender Manuel da Costa.

Olympiakos’ athletic director Francois Modesto was sent to the stands for protesting about the lead-up to AEK’s goal. His team’s central defender Alberto Botia was dismissed after a second yellow card in the 75th for pulling an advancing AEK forward’s jersey.

Despite the defeat, its second of the season, Olympiakos has a 10-point cushion over second-place Panionios, which beat 10-man Iraklis 1-0.

PAOK, a 4-0 winner over Veria, remains in third place, one point ahead of Panathinaikos, which beat Asteras 5-0 on Saturday. AEK is joint fifth with Xanthi.

PSG drops points against Toulouse days after massive UCL win

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 14:  Julian Draxler of Paris Saint-Germain looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and FC Barcelona at Parc des Princes on February 14, 2017 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Just days after its massive (and somewhat unexpected) beatdown of Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain failed to close the gap on league leaders Monaco.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win ]

PSG settled for a 0-0 draw on Sunday at the Parc des Princes against eighth-place Toulouse, leaving the Parisian side three points behind Monaco through 26 rounds of action.

[ MORE: Bielsa returns to Ligue 1 with Lille ]

Despite holding the visitors to just three shots (one on target), Toulouse managed to contain a rampant PSG attack, which posted four goals midweek in their rout of the Blaugrana.

PSG’s first strong chance came in the 14th minute when Lucas Moura’s effort was saved in the bottom corner by goalkeeper Alban Lafont.

Meanwhile, Edinson Cavani may have had the game’s best opportunity to break the deadlock when the Uruguayan attacker struck the post from inside the penalty area.

Unai Emery’s group will be back in action on Feb. 26 when PSG travels to Dimitri Payet and Marseille.

Wenger worried over Sutton’s pitch heading Monday’s clash

SUTTON, GREATER LONDON - FEBRUARY 16:  Pundits Paul Merson (4L) and Matt Le Tissier (2L) take part in a training session alongside Paul Doswell manager of Sutton United (L) and players during a Sutton United FA Cup media day on February 16, 2017 at the Borough Sports Ground in Sutton, Greater London. Sutton United are due to face Arsenal in the Emirates FA Cup Fifth round on 20 February.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The story of Monday’s encounter between Arsenal and fifth-division Sutton United will be whether the minnows can overcome the mighty Gunners.

[ MORE: Mourinho pleased with United’s “attitude” against Blackburn ]

However, Arsene Wenger already fears a bigger challenge within the game, one that concerns his players’ safety.

Sutton’s 5,000-seat Gander Green Lane features an artificial surface, which is largely uncommon for English and most European venues regardless of club standing.

“First of all the pitch. Secondly their enthusiasm. Thirdly that we are not ready mentally for a big fight and think subconsciously that it doesn’t matter,” Wenger said ahead of Monday’s FA Cup meeting in South London.

In preparation for their meeting with the U’s, Wenger had his side train on their own indoor artificial field on Friday.

“Look, ideally we would like to play on a normal pitch. Competition is as well to deal with what you face, and we’ll face an unusual pitch and we’ll have to deal with it,” he said.

“We practice inside [on Friday] because we have an artificial pitch. It’s not the same as it’s a dry pitch, and at Sutton I’ve heard that’s a wet pitch, they water it before the game. So it will be much quicker than what we have.”

Leipzig beats ‘Gladbach 2-1, cuts Bayern’s Bundesliga lead

Leipzig's scorer Willi Orban, center, and his teammates celebrate their side's 2nd goal during the German Bundesliga soccer match between RB Leipzig and Hertha BSC Berlin in Leipzig, Germany, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
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BERLIN (AP) Leipzig held on for a 2-1 win at Borussia Moenchengladbach to cut Bayern Munich’s lead in the Bundesliga to five points on Sunday.

[ MORE: Messi rescues Barca, Pescara wins second Serie A match ]

Emil Forsberg scored one and set up another for the promoted side to end its two-game losing streak and stay on course for Champions League qualification with its 14th win of the season.

[ MORE: Bielsa makes Ligue 1 return, joins Lille as new manager ]

`Gladbach `keeper Yann Sommer pulled off a brilliant fingertip save to deny Marcel Sabitzer early on, but he was powerless to stop Forsberg from breaking the deadlock after half an hour played.

Sabitzer and Timo Werner played their way through the static `Gladbach defense and Werner laid the ball off for the Sweden midfielder to fire inside the bottom left corner.

The home side was given a lifeline when Marvin Compper brought down Lars Stindl and referee Felix Zwayer pointed to the spot, but Peter Gulacsi saved Thorgan Hazard‘s penalty before the break.

More poor defending allowed Werner grab the second 10 minutes after the break, firing inside the far post after Forsberg played him through.

Jannik Vestergaard pulled one back with a powerful header from a corner to set up an exciting finale. However, six minutes of injury time were not enough for an equalizer.

Leipzig had kicked off to a chorus of whistles from the home fans, who then mostly stayed silent till the 19th minute in protest against the visiting side. Huge banners in the north stand said “Traditional club since 1900” – an apparent protest against Leipzig, founded in 2009 when Austrian energy-drink billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz rebranded a fifth-tier team with his company’s livery before financing its steady promotion through the lower leagues.

COLOGNE 1, SCHALKE 1

Cologne stopped Schalke’s progress but the point was enough for the visiting side to overtake `Gladbach on goal difference in 10th.

Alessandro Schoepf got the visitors off to a flying start in the second minute with the help of the left post, and Leon Goretzka hit the post after half an hour with the home side still struggling to get into the game.

But Anthony Modeste equalized before the break with a fine strike inside the far post, and might even have scored again just minutes later, when his hesitation allowed Benedikt Hoewedes get back and clear.

Guido Burgstaller came closest to a winner for Schalke in the second half, his shot just wide of the far post after beating the goalkeeper.