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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.

 

 

 

Transfer rumor roundup: Mahrez “seduced” by Arsenal, Witsel pursued

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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The transfer mill has been churning out big names moves a-plenty this week as teams gear up for their seasons.

Rumors are coming fast and furious still, and Saturday is no exception.

[ MORE: Kolo to Celtic ]

Iceland’s run to the EURO quarterfinals may’ve opened a lot of eyes, but many already knew about Gylfi Sigurdsson. The Swansea man left for and returned from Spurs, but now could be on the move again.

The Express says Everton are willing to spend close to $33 million to lure Sigurdsson to Goodison Park. How wild have transfer fees gone in recent years? Brexit deflation aside, Sigurdsson’s moves to Swansea and Spurs cost between $9-12 million.


Eurosport reports that Arsenal is ready to go big in pursuit of Leicester City maestro Riyad Mahrez.

The Algerian international is said to have been “seduced” by the Gunners and wants to make a move to North London. The fee would be approximately $55 million, and take another instrumental part of the Foxes’ PL title run from the East Midlands.


The Sun claims that four omissions from Tottenham’s recent travel list mean all are destined to be sold by Mauricio Pochettino. Clinton N'Jie, Alex Pritchard, Nabil Bentaleb and Federico Fazio are ready for your club’s bid.

Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United - Capital One Cup Quarter-Final


Zenit Saint Petersburg coach Mircea Lucescu told Calciomercato that there are three offers in for Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel, one in the Premier League and two in Serie A. Witsel has been linked with Everton, Liverpool and Roma this summer.

WATCH: Juventus’ Blanco scores from just inside Melbourne’s half

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 23:  Carlos Blanco Moreno of Juventus celebrates his second half goal during the 2016 International Champions Cup Australia match between Melbourne Victory FC and Juventus FC at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 23, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Pat Scala/Getty Images)
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Young Spanish center back Carlos Blanco Moreno cranked home a long distance goal in Saturday’s International Champions Cup match between Juventus and Melbourne Victory.

[ MORE: Kolo to Celtic ]

Ex-Barcelona man Blanco, 20, brought down a substandard clearance from Melbourne goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas, took a touch, and blasted a shot over the 24-year-old Australian backstop.

Melbourne would draw level before going on to win the match in penalty kicks, but this was the highlight of the match.

Kolo Toure undergoing medical ahead of Rodgers reunion at Celtic

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 13:  Kolo Toure of Liverpool talks during the Liverpool UEFA Europa League Cup Final Media Day at Melwood Training Ground on May 13, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Sky Sports reports that longtime Liverpool defender Kolo Toure has found a home under his former manager.

The 35-year-old center back was released by the Reds this summer, and is undergoing a medical ahead of joining Brendan Rodgers at Celtic.

[ MORE: Sunderland hires Moyes ]

Toure joined Liverpool from Manchester City in 2013, one year after Rodgers took the helm at Anfield.

The move would be Celtic’s second signing under Rodgers, as the Glasgow side added French forward Moussa Dembele from Fulham earlier this summer.

Report: Juve buys Higuain for $103m, tipped as precursor to Pogba sale

NAPLES, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Gonzalo Higuain (R) and MArek Hamsik of Napoli celebrate the equalizing goal during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and Empoli FC at Stadio San Paolo on January 31, 2016 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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It’s a move that screams its own headlines, yet is being tipped as a precursor to a larger one.

According to Sky Sports, Juventus has purchased Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli for an incredible $103 million, equaling the second-highest transfer fee in football history (Cristiano Ronaldo).

Higuain is 28 years old, making the fee even harder to fathom despite his status as the reigning Serie A goal leader. His 36 goals in 35 matches was by far his best campaign, though he’s always been a productive striker.

[ MORE: Sunderland hires Moyes ]

Moreover, the massive money only fuels the fire that Juventus is possibly selling Paul Pogba to Manchester United or Real Madrid for what will certainly be a world record fee, eclipsing the $110 million Real paid for Gareth Bale in 2013.

Higuain was also tipped for a move to Arsenal, but that always seemed improbable given the reported fees and Arsene Wenger‘s preference for younger players.

It’s a huge risk for Juventus, even given the probability of Pogba money arriving in Turin.