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.

Americans Abroad wrap: Goals for Boyd, Gooch, Ariyibi

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Not every American player abroad found himself beneath a cleat this weekend, like DeAndre Yedlin.

[ PL PREVIEW: Arsenal vs. West Brom ]

The Magpies right back went 90 minutes for Newcastle and delivered good service in the 1-0 loss to Brighton and Hove Albion. How did other Americans fare abroad?

Germany

Bobby Wood led Hamburg in attempts on goal in Hamburg’s 3-0 loss at Bayer Leverkusen.

— American teenager Weston McKennie made his second-straight start for Schalke, but was again on the losing end in a 2-0 defeat at Hoffenheim.

— Fellow 19-year-old Christian Pulisic went 64 minutes for first-place Borussia Dortmund, leaving with BVB up 5-0 and en route to a 6-1 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach.

— Not many Foals had good matches in that 6-1 defeat to BVB, and Fabian Johnson departed after 72 minutes with his side down four.

— Credit Timmy Chandler for a match-best four crosses in Eintracht Frankfurt’s 2-1 loss at RB Leipzig.

— In the second tier, Terrence Boyd came off the bench to fire his first goal of the season, a 90th minute header that was joined by Tobias Kempe’s 93rd minute marker to give Darmstadt a 3-3 draw versus Dynamo Dresden.

— Alfredo Morales went 90 minutes in the midfield as Ingolstadt lost 2-0 at Bochum.

— Julian Green got another 90 at left midfield/wing but Greuther Furth fell 3-1 at home to Nurnberg.

— On loan from Schalke, Haji Wright went 59 minutes at center forward as Sandhausen fell 1-0 at Erzegebirge Aue. Ken Gipson was on the bench for the ninth time but did not feature for the eighth.

— Jann George had an assist for Jahn Regensburg in a 2-1 win against visiting Eintracht Braunschweig.

England

— Yedlin went 90 for Newcastle, as detailed above.

— On the otherside of the Tyne-Wear rivalry, Sunderland midfielder Lynden Gooch had a moment to remember in a loss to Cardiff City. Gooch converted a penalty that briefly leveled the match.

— Eric Lichaj isn’t getting Championship run for Nottingham Forest, but went 90 minutes at right mid in a 5-1 League Cup loss to Chelsea at midweek.

— Tim Ream has played all 810 league minutes for Fulham, who drew 1-1 versus Middlesbrough at Craven Cottage

— On loan from Everton, Antonee Robinson is still yet to taste victory as a member of Bolton Wanderers. They fell 3-0 to Brentford, with Robinson putting in 75 minutes at left mid.

— On loan from Spurs, Cameron Carter-Vickers went the distance for Sheffield United in a 4-2 derby win over Sheffield Wednesday. The Blades have won both of the 19-year-old’s starts.

— In League One, Gboly Ariyibi scored for the third time in six days as MK Dons won 2-0 at AFC Wimbledon.

— Duane Holmes put another 90 in the books at right mid for Scunthorpe United in a 2-0 win over visiting Portsmouth.

Elsewhere

— Ethan Horvath picked up a win as Club Brugge went to RSC Charleroi and won 2-1. Brugge is 7W-1L in league play this season, and the 22-year-old has played every minute.

— On loan from Chelsea, Matt Miazga went 90 minutes at center back for Vitesse in a 2-1 win at Ajax.

Benitez peeved by block on Brighton’s clever set piece goal (video)

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Brighton midfielder Dale Stephens and Newcastle United boss Rafa Benitez obviously feel quite different about the match-winning goal the Gulls nabbed off a set piece on Sunday.

[ MORE: Recap | Hemed denies intent vs. Yedlin ]

Both agree on one thing, though, there’s blocking involved in the play’s success.

“We’ve tried it a few times,” Stephens said. “I’m glad it paid off. We change the blocker each time.”

Benitez saw his club’s three-match winning streak end largely on the merit of that goal, and thinks a foul should’ve been spotted by Andre Marriner.

Ciaran Clark is partially and purposely blocked from moving toward Stephens at the back post, and also misses the ball after Stephens nods back across goal.

It’s a clever play which led to an important goal, but Benitez feels it was insidious and illegal.

“I am not happy with the way we conceded. It was a block, an illegal block. You cannot argue too much but it is very difficult to understand some things. They pushed my players.

What do you think? There’s not much in the block. At the same time, it’s hard to call it anything but a block.

Hemed denies intention in Yedlin stamp

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Tomer Hemed‘s day could’ve gone south despite scoring what turned out to be the match-winning goal on Sunday against Newcastle United.’

[ RECAP: Brighton 1-0 Newcastle ]

Standing over a prone DeAndre Yedlin, the Brighton striker stamped down on the American fullback’s calf. The foul left Yedlin on the turf in pain for a moment.

The move was not seen by officials, and the Gulls needed every one of their 11 men to hold off a furious late charge by the visiting Magpies.

Hemed says the stamp was an accident, and had nothing to do with a previous incident between the two players. From The Newcastle Chronicle:

“No. It was by accident. Before I just told him: If you cannot jump for the ball, why push me? Try to take the ball, don’t push me. But after that, it was by accident. If I hurt him, I am sorry.”

Brighton boss Chris Hughton says he saw the play, but thought it was an accident.

“My very first impression is no intent,” he said. “There has been contact but my first impression is no intent and knowing the individual I would say no intent.”

The incident threatens not only to color the Gulls’ resolute defending and win, but could cost Hemed a three-match ban upon review.

Brighton and Hove Albion 1-0 Newcastle United: Gulls hold off Magpies

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  • Scoreless at half
  • Hemed nabs 2nd PL goal
  • NUFC leads in shots 17-7

Tomer Hemed‘s early second half goal helped Brighton and Hove Albion end Newcastle United’s three-match win streak in a 1-0 match at the Amex Stadium on Sunday.

Newcastle drops to eighth on goal differential, while the win boosts Brighton 13th.

Newcastle faces Liverpool on Oct. 1 ahead of the international break, while Brighton is off to Arsenal.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

A first-minute foul on Joselu cued Matt Ritchie up for a free kick which led to a Newcastle corner kick. The effort swerved outside the 18, where Mikel Merino forced Mat Ryan into a diving right-handed parry.

At the other end? Something akin to a rugby ruck inside the 18 was barely cleared by the Magpies as the first five minutes promised an entertaining encounter.

Brighton worked a scintillating counter in the seventh minute, but it only led to a Tomer Hemed low effort. It was scooped easily by Rob Elliot.

The Seagulls saw Gross’ wide-open rocket clatter off Anthony Knockaert in front of the Newcastle goal, but Brighton had to feel good about the progress of the match.

It was against the run of play that Newcastle almost opened the scoring, as Christian Atsu sent Ayoze Perez down the left and his cutback found Joselu. The Spaniard dragged his shot just wide of the far post.

A wide open game, Chancel Mbemba found Perez for a shot that blazed wide of the frame in the 31st minute. Ritchie hit a free kick into the arms of Ryan eight minutes later.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Hemed gave Brighton its lead in the 51st minute off a free kick headed back into the mix by Stephens. Hemed plucked the ball out of the air with a raised boot to make it 1-0.

It could’ve been 2-0 five minutes later when Bruno found Solly March, but Elliot made a sliding boot save on the line.

Ritchie earned a dangerous free kick that was turned into a corner following a Merino rip, and the 63rd minute chance was played short and pushed out of bounds by Newcastle.

A series of corners arrived following the introductions of Jonjo Shelvey and Dwight Gayle, though the Gulls handled them fairly well.

The 79th minute saw a terrific cross from DeAndre Yedlin go for nought when Atsu grounded a shot at Ryan.

Substitute Jesus Gamez bounced a shot wide of the near post in the 84th minute, as time was running low for the Magpies.

Hemed stamped Yedlin’s calf in the 88th minute, the clever dirty play unseen by the officials.