Lionel Messi’s stinker against Holland, explained

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It was, in the purest sense, a match neither side wanted to lose.

Holland and Argentina, both within a sniff of the World Cup final, had clear defensive objectives heading into their semifinal clash on Wednesday night.

Argentina’s objective: prevent Arjen Robben from being Arjen Robben.

Holland’s objective: prevent Lionel Messi from being Lionel Messi.

Ultimately, both game-plans ended in success as the two stars were prevented from scoring during regulation and extra time. But whereas both found it difficult to get into the match, it was Robben who shook off the cobwebs to become the danger man everyone has grown to fear.

After a first-half where Javier Mascherano, Enzo Perez, Martin Demichelis and Marcos Rojo beat, battered and double-teamed Robben out of the match, the second-half saw the Dutch wonder assess his situation and make changes to find the ball. With Jordy Claise on for Nigel de Jong, the Dutch began spraying balls out wide and it clicked for Robben: get out of the middle and demand the ball.

He went wide right, then wide left and then back to the right. He looked to dart up the wings as well as take his dribbles on the diagonal. Was it a notable performance for Robben? Not particularly. But he kept trying, kept searching for answers and eventually, was rewarded with two glorious chances to score in the 91st and 96th minutes only to be denied by the brilliant Javier Mascherano.

Messi had similar problems with worse results. He had to deal with guys like Bruno Martins Indi, who was all too happy to thump Messi any chance he had, and Nigel De Jong, who hasn’t seen a shin he doesn’t like to crack. La Pulga’s true nemesis, however, came in the form of a heaving Ron Vlaar who played out of his mind making a handful of sensational slide tackles on the Argentine.

The physical approach was nothing that Messi hadn’t seen in every match he’s played in over the last ten years. The problem was, he let it get to him. It wasn’t just infringements that prompted Messi to throw his hands in the air, it was legal tackles.

His frustration was palpable. And yet, instead of searching for solutions, Messi seemed content standing on the center-backs and simply drawing defenders away from the ball. Which is a fine technique in small doses but for prolonged periods of time? When you’re supposedly the best player in the world?

That’s not good enough.

When Messi did look to see more of the ball it was always through the middle of the pitch where he was promptly swarmed by defenders. And when that didn’t work, well, that was it. He rarely went wide. He didn’t look to change his link-up approach with Gonzalo Higuain or Sergio Aguero. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, that Messi was out of ideas.

Of course, Messi is never out of ideas. But the fact that he didn’t seem bothered to change his approach – to demand the ball, to ask for more from his teammates – was puzzling. How could his influence become so dulled on the one stage he had waited to so long to perform on?

Just 24 hours before the match news broke that a friend of Messi, Argentine journalist Jorge Lopez, had died in a car crash in Sao Paulo.

And just like that, the analysis of Messi’s anti-influence comes to a screeching halt.

So often we expect professional athletes to play through news and events that deeply affect their lives. Is it reasonable? No. But because the greats are just that, legends in human form, we expect them to rise up and conquer no matter what life throws at them.

On Wednesday, Messi faced difficult circumstances and was unable to be the hero we all expect him to be. Thankfully, fate – and four quality penalties – awarded him a second chance. And on Sunday he can prove the semifinal a flash in the pan by going on to stake his claim as the greatest footballer to ever walk the earth.

 

 

 

Could Iniesta succeed at Manchester City

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It appears more likely with each passing day that Andres Iniesta will leave Barcelona at the end of the season.

The general feeling around Iniesta’s future is that he’ll either follow former teammate Xavi Hernandez to a club in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, or follow Javier Mascherano to a club in China.

But according to reports in Spain, Iniesta has received a request from a manager who is inextricably linked with his career.

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Per Diario AS, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has reached out to Iniesta to try and gauge the 33-year old’s interest in coming to England. It’s a surprising move, considering Iniesta has appeared to have lost a step, and while his skill on the ball is still world class, he hasn’t played as big of a role for Barcelona this season as in years past.

But the big question for Iniesta – as hard as it is to believe we’re asking this – is where he’d fit into the side, and who he’d push out.

If Guardiola sees Iniesta as part of his best XI, and Iniesta played his usual position on the left side of a midfield trio or at left wing, that would see either David Silva or Leroy Sane losing their spot in the team. That’s hard to see, considering how big of an impact those players had.

Sane has scored nine goals and dished out 12 assists in the Premier League while Silva has a nearly-identical stat line, with nine goals and 11 assists in league play.

However, if Guardiola, who played a very small squad this season, wants to have a world-class player to bring off the bench some games or spot start in the UEFA Champions League, he couldn’t do much better than signing Iniesta.

After being given time to adjust to the physicality of the Premier League, there’s no reason why, even at his advanced age, Iniesta can’t make a big impact in 25-30 games for Man City in the future. You can imagine the Spanish maestro setting up 10 to 15 goals and scoring a few himself as he plays for another title-winning side.

Of course, Iniesta likely won’t earn as much money with Man City as he would in the Arab world or in China, so he has a big decision to make coming up.

Iniesta won three La Liga titles, two Copas Del Rey, two UEFA Champions League and two FIFA Club World Cup titles under Guardiola as Barcelona shined as the best club in the world during that era. Iniesta also made UEFA’s Team of the Year all four years.

Perhaps reuniting with Guardiola can bring the best out of Iniesta once again.

Report: Man United to target Rose, other full backs this summer

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Jose Mourinho has identified perhaps the most underrated position on the pitch as a place he needs to upgrade his squad this summer.

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According to a report from The Guardian, the Manchester United manager is looking to sign Tottenham wing back Danny Rose and potentially another full back in the summer transfer window. With Luke Shaw likely to leave the club, Mourinho is left with incumbents left back Ashley Young and right back Antonio Valencia, both on the wrong side of 30-years old and both converted wingers playing out-of-position.

Mourinho last December decried crosstown rivals Man City for spending more than $140 million to sign wing backs Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker last summer. Though Mendy missed most of the season with a torn ACL, Walker and fellow outside back Danilo helped give Man City’s attack another dimension out wide, as the wing backs in the 3-4-3 or Man City’s 4-1-4-1 with Fernandinho dropping back into the centerback pairing become ever more important.

Rose has had a contentious last 18-months or so at Tottenham and could be looking to leave this summer. But it will likely take a bid north of $75 million, around what it cost Man City to sign Walker last summer, to buy Rose out of his Tottenham contract.

Matteo Darmian meanwhile, another potential outside back for Man United, could also be departing the club this summer, as Man United looks to replenish its side.

Errors down, penalty kicks up after introduction of VAR in Italy

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The implementation of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in Italy has been controversial, but according to a look at the statistics, it has for the most part done its job to fix clear and obvious errors.

Italian sports paper Gazzetta Dello Sport compiled all the times VAR has been used through 346 matches, 330 in Serie A and 16 in the Coppa Italia. There were 1,736 checks (916 goals, 464 penalties and 356 red cards) with 105 corrections and just 17 errors where the referee and assistant made the wrong decision. Eight of those errors did affect the result, which is an issue that will surely be addressed by the Italian officiating organization.

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But overall, Gazzetta found that in the VAR era, referee errors only amounted to 0.98 percent during a match, as opposed to 6.03 percent in the past. In addition, fouls are down 8.8 percent, red cards are down 6.4 percent, and yellow cards are down 14.7 percent. On the flip side, penalty kicks are called 4.3 more percent of the time.

The Premier League voted recently not to add VAR to its league matches next season, while top leagues in Germany, Italy and in Major League Soccer and the United Soccer League continue to use it.

Report: New Arsenal manager will have small budget to re-shape squad

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Whoever takes the helm as Arsenal’s next manager will have to do some math gymnastics this summer to stretch every penny available.

According to a report from The Telegraph, Arsenal is giving Arsene Wenger‘s successor a little less than $70 million to work with in this summer’s transfer market, citing back-to-back transfer windows with club-record signings (Alexandre Lacazette last summer and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in January) and three raises given to players. Arsenal paid around $78 million alone to sign Aubameyang and around $65 million for Lacazette.

[READ: UCL Preview: Liverpool vs. Roma]

That means whoever comes in next to lead Arsenal will likely have to sell one or two players this summer to raise additional money for world-class signings.

For the last decade, Arsenal has been crying out for a new pair of centerbacks and a holding midfielder in the mould of Patrick Vieira. In addition, with Petr Cech getting older, the prospect of needing a new goalkeeper is also on the horizon.

Luckily for Arsenal, they seem to be just fine up front. From Aubameyang and Lacazette to Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey, the club has the talent to challenge for a title next season in that department.

A dozen different names have been bandied about as to who will be Arsenal’s next manager, with out-of-contract and former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique reportedly on the shortlist. Vieira, former Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta, Germany National Team coach Joachim Low, Juventus boss Max Allegri and Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsman have all also been linked with the job.