Defenses be damned, Messi keeps doing the impossible

6 Comments

No sport stifles the individual more than world-class soccer. In baseball, you can intentionally walk a hitter, in football you can double-team a great receiver or pass rusher, in basketball and hockey you can tilt your defense toward the other team’s star. But only in soccer can you dedicate two or three players to surround a player more or less every minute of the game. It would be like two defenders following that receiver into the huddle and on to the bench.

Only in soccer can you, with enough dedication, make a great player disappear.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi has not scored a goal since the World Cup knockout round began. Teams playing Argentina have tilted the entire axis of their defenses to stop him from being a factor. He hardly seemed to touch the ball at all in Argentina’s penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands. He had one semi-dangerous free kick, one penalty-kick goal, a couple of curtailed runs and two or three interesting passes … but mostly he was silenced by a concerted Dutch effort.

On Sunday, Germany figures to defend Messi with more or less the same intensity and focus. Maybe more. Germany already made the great Cristiano Ronaldo disappear in its 4-0 battering of Portugal back in group play. German teams in the World Cup have long displayed the discipline and will to stifle a single player, no matter how great. This includes the man Messi has most often been compared with, his countryman, Diego Maradona. In 1990, West Germany beat Argentina 1-0 –- Argentina became the first team to not score in a World Cup final –- and Maradona was nowhere to be found.

[All 2014 World Cup news]

But, if you think about the sport, the amazing part is not that teams are able to take out one great player with a concerted effort. The amazing part is that great players EVER break through. The fact that Lionel Messi, four-time World Player of the Year, still does magical things with regularity, even when teams have designed entire game plans to keep him from even touching the ball, is mind-blowing. This, I think, is what makes him the most fascinating athlete in the world to watch.

In South Africa, at the World Cup four years ago, a player told me that if teams tried to defend Messi the way they defend most players, he would score three or four goals every game. This is because no player in the world – not even Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar – can match Messi’s absurd combination of balance, speed, control, power and imagination. Well, no one in any sport can. He is an incredible blend of familiar athletes from other sports -– he cuts and dodges like Barry Sanders, sees the field like Peyton Manning, passes like Sidney Crosby, maintains his balance like LeBron James. When he dribbles forward, the ball seems to stick to his feet, as if attached by Velcro, and with moves so subtle they are invisible at real speed, he makes defenders fall down.

Most of all, though, he is always prepared for the opportunity. This is the most extraordinary part of Messi to me. A soccer match is 90 minutes, and for most of those 90 minutes he is uninvolved. The other team is on the attack. He is being watched closely by three men. He must stand back to keep his defenders away from a teammate. You would expect Messi to be frustrated by this. There’s the classic story of Wilt Chamberlain leaving Kansas to go play for the Harlem Globetrotters. When asked why, he said: “I was tired of being guarded by four guys.”

[PST: If Argentina wins World Cup, will Messi be considered among best ever?]

But Messi does not get frustrated. A handful of times a game -– sometimes one or two times, sometimes five or six -– there is the slightest opening. The opponent blinks. A bad pass leads to a break. A defender slips. There is a tiny loss of concentration. And Messi strikes. In this way, he is not like any of those athletes above -– Barry Sanders would get 25 or 30 carries, Peyton Manning 40 or 50 passes, Crosby and James will have plenty of rushes up the ice and court.

No, in these moments, he’s more like James Bond, surrounded by henchmen, attached to a bomb, dangling over a water tank with sharks. When the moment is right, he has to do something extraordinary because he won’t get a second chance. In the 90th minute against Iran, scoreless tie, Messi gets the ball in a little bit of space, dribbles it to his left foot, unleashes a ridiculous 25-yard strike into the left-corner of the goal. In extra time against Switzerland, with the tournament on the line, Messi breaks through a defense that had mostly quieted him, draws everyone toward him, and drops off a pass to Angel di Maria, who scores the game-winner.

It is often in the later stages of the game, when players get tired and their concentration wanes just a little, that Messi gets his one good chance to do something extraordinary. And, more than anyone else perhaps since Maradona, he takes that chance and does something extraordinary.

The stories coming into the final seem to revolve around a simple question: If Messi leads Argentina to victory over Germany, will he have staked his claim as the greatest player ever? This has inspired long think pieces in various newspapers around the world as people remember Pelé and Maradona and Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer and so on. It has sparked people like Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho to weigh in (Mourinho says Messi does not need to win the World Cup to have his place among the greatest ever, but either way he is not THE greatest ever).

And that’s a fun one, but the real question is this: Can Messi really lead Argentina against a German side that seems much deeper and better? Will Germany give him even the slightest chance to do something wonderful Sunday? No team can stop Kevin Durant from scoring a basket or Tom Brady from completing a pass or Alex Ovechkin from taking his shots. But soccer is different. German coach Joachim Low has reportedly developed a secret plan to deal with Messi, though I suspect it will look a lot like everyone else’s secret plan: Make him invisible. It will work for most of the game because that’s the sport.

But will there be a chance, two chances, three chances for Lionel Messi to get the ball in a tiny patch of field, slip by one defender, power through another, dribble the ball close like it is on a short leash, crack a shot toward an open corner or flip it to a wide-open teammate only a half-step onside? This is at the heart of Lionel Messi’s brilliance. It is impossible for one person to score a goal when 11 men are determined to stop him. Impossible. Somehow Messi does it all the time.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski.

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

Getty Images
Leave a comment

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.