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.

Lukaku rejects big comparisons: “I can’t say I’m in my prime”

AP Photo/Ben Margot
Leave a comment

Romelu Lukaku has bagged a bunch of goals and played on three Premier League teams, but knows there’s another level to his game as he opens up life at Manchester United.

Rejecting comparisons to big strikers like Didier Drogba (because they’re different style players) and Robert Lewandowski (because he’s not yet at that level), Lukaku gave his thoughts about his career’s next steps.

[ MORE: Q&A with Edin Dzeko ]

Lukaku didn’t score in the PL for Chelsea, but has a 17-goal campaign on loan to West Bromwich Albion as well as 15-, 10-, 18-, and 25-goal seasons for Everton.

From Sky Sports:

“I’m 24 years of age, I cannot say I am the complete package, I can’t say I’m in my prime.

“There is still a lot of work to be done and I am delighted there is still a lot of work to be done. That means I can become even better than I am now.”

Lukaku most needs consistency in his game. Even in his massive campaign last season, he twice went four matches without a goal. While it’s possible to have fine performances but not find finish, Everton went 1W-3D-4L in those combined stretches and five of those matches were against bottom half sides.

Something tells us having Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Marcus Rashford setting him up could help, too.

Q&A: Edin Dzeko on Roma, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Champions League

Photo by Dino Panato/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PST spoke to a quartet of AS Roma players this week as the club contends the 2017 International Champions Cup in the United States with the aim of a profile piece on i Lupi captain Daniele De Rossi’s quest for an elusive scudetto.

That piece came out well, but the conversations with some of his teammates were just as fun. While Kevin Strootman’s resilience and Hector Moreno’s Mexican ambassador status neatly fit into individual posts, our talk with ex-Man City striker and reigning Capocannoniere winner Edin Dzeko works better in Q&A form.

[ MORE: How will Chicharito slot in at West Ham? ]

Plenty has changed since Dzeko scored in Man City’s wild title-clinching finish against QPR. Dzeko talked about his surprising and explosive 29-goal Serie A season, his interest in a UEFA Champions League return to the Etihad Stadium, and a love for representing his home nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Enjoy.

PST: Obviously we know your quality from having scored 25-plus goals three times in seasons at Wolfsburg and Manchester City, but what was it like going from 10 goals to 39 in your second season at Roma?

Edin Dzeko: “It was definitely one of the best in my career. When you get up in your years you are supposed to go down, but actually I’ve gone up. I felt good and from the beginning of preseason I trained hard and it was an important season after getting to know the qualities of the teams and players in the league after my first season in Italy. Last year was big proof of it and like it always is, it was harder than it looked.”

PST: You’ve won the Bundesliga and the Premier League, the latter twice. Last season you shaved Juventus’ table advantage to four points. Can this be the year?

Dzeko: “I have hope that I can do the same in Italy. It’s definitely not easy with Juventus having it the last few years and not selling, only buying new players. Last season was really good for us. We were very close but we still dropped some easy points against the small teams and that cost us at the end. Next year we play Champions League. We changed coaches and a few players left and others came so we have to gather up to the new style of the coach and the new players have to learn what it is to play in Italy. Hopefully this season can be better than last, but we have to go step-by-step.”

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

PST: Wolfsburg had never won, and Man City hadn’t in 40-plus years. Can those experiences help in pushing Roma to its first scudetto since 2001?

Dzeko: “Hopefully. Also when I went to City and we won the first and second title, the team was probably was one of the best in England where it’s also not so easy to win the title. I have another three years contract in Rome and this town and these fans deserve a title. It’s such a shame, every year without a title for this club.”

PST: What would it mean?

Dzeko: “It would mean everything. Hopefully we will manage to do this in the next few years, but it would mean everything to them. I’d habe a lot of good feelings if Roma would manage to win the title. It would be amazing for all the players. They will love us and never forget. The people in Rome, they live for football. They live for us.”

PST: Hector Moreno mentioned that hunger in training was evident in just the few days he’s been there.

Dzeko: “You have to be hungry for good things because it’s a new young team, a new coach, and the team is step-by-step building itself in new directions. We lost four, five players from last seasons so it’s never easy to bring seven, eight new players and immediately work it out. So this preseason is important.”

(Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images)

PST: You’re Bosnia and Herzegovina’s all-time leading scorer, and you seem to relish international breaks and pulling on the shirt. 

Dzeko: “I’m proud of myself for what I’ve achieved because I remember when I was young and I was looking to the players, my idols, who were playing with Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s something special, we can take it to heart and I’m proud that I can be the idol of some young boys in Bosnia that can still believe they can do some good things and positive stuff in the future. When someone from our small country goes out and plays in a league like Italy, it gives the confidence for the rest of the young people that they can know that everything is possible.”

PST: You’re also pretty active in causes around Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dzeko: “It’s important for me because it’s my country, it’s the country that gave me everything, where I grew up for 18 years before I left for Czech Republic first and then Germany, England, Italy. I want to help the people who need help because I have the possibility to do it. I will always be there for them and I’m also the UNICEF ambassador that makes me even more proud because I love kids.”

PST: Finally, Roma is in a different pot than Manchester City for this year’s UEFA Champions League. Would you like to be drawn with your old team, or prefer the clubs stay separate?

Dzeko: “I would love it, to be fair. I would love to go back there and even against City I bring so many good memories from the beautiful days and my connection with the fans and club. I would definitely look forward to it.”

Reports: Swans rebuff Everton bid for Sigurdsson; want $65M

Getty Images
Leave a comment

What’s $7-13 million amongst peers?

Swansea City has reportedly shot down either a $52 and/or a $58 million Everton bid for Gylfi Sigurdsson, offers that falls shy of Swans’ $65 million asking price.

$65 million? Why that’s almost Benjamin Mendy money.

Either way, with Sigurdsson absent from Swansea’s U.S. tour, a move seems predetermined.

[ SERIE A: Can De Rossi help Roma catch Juve? ]

The BBC says Monday’s offer was the $52m price, and that it was Everton’s first offer, though The Guardian says it’s a second $58m bid from Everton for the Icelandic playmaker who almost single-handedly ensured the Welsh side’s Premier League status last season.

Reports of an initial $52 million bid also came earlier this month.

Sigurdsson, 27, scored nine goals last season and teamed with Fernando Llorente to form a potent duo. He first made his PL impression with seven goals during a half-season loan from Hoffenheim, and moved to Spurs for a tumultuous two seasons.

He’s since recorded seven-, 11-, and 9-goal seasons for Swans.

Everton has spent big this summer and look set to have the depth to compete in both the Premier League and UEFA Europa League.

VIDEO: Chicharito talks West Ham signing, opener at Manchester United

AP Photo/Jon Super
Leave a comment

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is back in the Premier League, and will debut for his new club at the home of his old club.

The league schedulers didn’t know the Mexican striker would be a member of West Ham United on Opening Day, but nonetheless have the first weekend ending with an 11 a.m. ET kickoff between the Irons and Red Devils of Manchester United at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: How will Chicharito slot in at West Ham? ]

Combine a new home with an old haunt, and you’ve got one fired up Little Pea:

“A little bit more than my teammates probably, of course to be back to Old Trafford to start this adventure this season with my new team. It’s gonna be a very important one and I’m going to be very happy to be there.”

Hear more from the latest West Ham buy below: