Defenses be damned, Messi keeps doing the impossible

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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.

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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.

Barcelona defends Messi over “unfair” suspension

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi’s four-match international suspension for insulting a linesman was “unfair and totally disproportionate.”

[ MORE: Messi handed ban by FIFA ]

Barcelona released a statement Wednesday expressing “its surprise and indignation” with FIFA’s decision to sideline the playmaker for so long following the incident in Argentina’s win over Chile in World Cup qualifying last week.

The punishment was announced before Argentina lost at Bolivia 2-0 Tuesday, a result that left the two-time champions at risk of not qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

Barcelona says it “wishes to reiterate its support for Leo Messi, an exemplary player in terms of conduct both on and off the field.”

Pending an appeal, Messi will only be available to play in Argentina’s final qualifier, on Oct. 10 against Ecuador.

World Cup hopes back on track: What next for USMNT?

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After a four-point haul over the past week in their two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. national team is back on track and heading in the right direction.

[ MORE: Latest USMNT news ]

Bruce Arena led the USMNT to a thumping 6-0 win over Honduras last Friday and then a gutsy 1-1 draw in Panama on Tuesday in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, as the Hexagonal standings will now look a lot better to U.S. fans who saw their team sitting bottom of the pile for the past four months following defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica which cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job.

So, the “Road to Russia” is looking a little less daunting for the U.S. but there are still tough tests ahead in the months to come in World Cup qualifying as well as a Gold Cup campaign on home soil in July.

First let’s look at the standings in the Hex. Ah, that’s better but things are now very tight aside from Mexico running away with things.

With six games to go the U.S. currently occupies the play-off spot as the top three teams in the Hex standings will qualify automatically for the World Cup and the fourth-place team has to play against the fifth-place team from qualifying in the Asian Football Confederation region.


Mexico — 10 points (+4 GD)
Costa Rica — 7 points (+4)
Panama — 5 points (0)
———————
USA — 4 points (+1)
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Honduras — 4 points (-5)
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points (-4)


And these are the USA’s six remaining qualifiers as they aim to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

June 8: vs. Trinidad and Tobago
June 11: at Mexico
September 1: vs. Costa Rica
September 5: at Honduras
October 6: vs. Panama
October 10: at Trinidad and Tobago

The first three games at crucial. If the U.S. manages to get seven points from those three matches, that’s magical. Even six points by beating T&T and Costa Rica on home soil would be superb. Yet, if the U.S. drops points to one or both of T&T and Costa Rica, that puts so much pressure on themselves to pick up wins on the road at Honduras and T&T in two of their final three qualifiers. That would not be an ideal scenario.

Still, heading into the past week the aim for the U.S. was to get back on track in qualifying and give themselves a chance of making the 2018 World Cup. They’ve done that. Now, the hard work begins.

Chelsea chase Alexis Sanchez; Man United want Dier

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The summer transfer rumors are heating up long before the heat of summer arrives…

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

On Wednesday it is being claimed by the Guardian that Alexis Sanchez has become Chelsea’s “No.1 target this summer” as the Arsenal and Chile forward has yet to sign a new deal with the Gunners.

Per the report, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has drafted up a shortlist of the players he wants to sign this summer and Sanchez is at the top of the Italian managers wishlist as he is also close to signing a new deal at Stamford Bridge.

Sanchez, 28, has a deal at Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but if the north London club fails to agree a new deal with him this summer (as well as Mesut Ozil and Arsene Wenger, but that’s another story…) then they’ll have to sell him on or risk losing him for nothing as a free agent next season.

The striker scored twice for Chile in their 2018 World Cup qualifying win over Venezuela on Tuesday and has been essential all season long to Arsenal, scoring 18 goals and adding nine assists after playing through the middle on his own for much of the campaign.

Would Arsenal really sell Sanchez to a PL rival? It wouldn’t be ideal but it’s not like they haven’t done that in the past. Think of Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy.

The thought of Sanchez on one wing with Diego Costa up top and Eden Hazard on the other wing at Chelsea should be enough to get Arsenal to offer their star man whatever cash he wants — the report states he wants $310,000 a week which would almost double his current $160,000 a week salary — when they sit down to discuss the new deal at the end of this season.


Elsewhere in north London, Tottenham Hotspur’s versatile defender Eric Dier has been linked with a $50 million move to Manchester United this summer.

According to Neil Ashton of the Sun, Dier, 23, is being lined up to replace Michael Carrick in the holding midfield role at United.

Now, Tottenham are notoriously tough to do business with and chairman Daniel Levy will not want to lose one of his top prospects and an England international to a direct rival in the Premier League.

That said, Dier has been used in multiple positions by Spurs this season and Mauricio Pochettino appears to prefer Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele as the holding midfielders and the emergence of Harry Winks has seen Dier’s importance questioned by some.

The fact that Dier can play in holding midfield or anywhere across the back line will also suit Moruinho who likes to have a smaller squad to work with and per the report the Portuguese boss has been a long-time admirer of Dier. His power to break up the play and also use he ball safely could work very well alongside Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera.

PHOTOS: Bizarre Cristiano Ronaldo statue unveiled

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Hang on, is that really meant to be Cristiano Ronaldo?

On Wednesday the Portugal and Real Madrid legend had Madeira Airport named after him just outside his hometown of Funchal and during the ceremony a bust of his head was put on show.

Except, it looked horrendous…

Take a look for yourself in the photos below. See.