Messi

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.

FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup 2016 — Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders

KANSAS CITY, KS - DECEMBER 07:  The Philip F. Anschutz trophy is seen on the field before the start of the match between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup at Sporting Park on December 7, 2013 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Leave a comment

279 days after First Kick, it’s all come down to this: MLS Cup 2016, between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, a pair of first-timers in MLS’s postseason title decider.

[ FOLLOW: Live score and updates from MLS Cup 2016 ]

Fighting out of the red corner, it’s Sebastian Giovinco (4 goals, 4 assists in five playoff games in 2016), Jozy Altidore (5 goals, 4 assists) and Michael Bradley. Fighting out of the blue (and Rave Green) corner, it’s Nicolas Lodeiro (4 goals), Jordan Morris (2 goals, 1 assist) and a suddenly stout Sounders defense (3 goals conceded).

[ MORE: TFC, Sounders present unique tactical challenges for each other ]

PST’s very own Nicholas Mendola will be reporting live from a frigid, frozen BMO Field (gametime temperatures expected to be in the low-20s), so make sure you follow him on Twitter, right here, and check back to PST for live updates, full-match recap, and post-game reaction from every angle.

Who: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders
What: MLS Cup 2016
When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
Where: BMO Field, Toronto, Canada
Why: To crown a champion

Deadly twin-bomb attack strikes police outside Istanbul stadium

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - DECEMBER 10: Ambulances arrive at the scene after explosions near the Besiktas Vodaphone Arena on December 10, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. According to reports, at least 13 people were killed after explosions believed to have been targeting riot police were set off near to the Besiktas Vodaphone Arena. (Photo by Getty Images)
Photo by Getty Images
Leave a comment

ISTANBUL (AP) Two explosions struck Saturday night outside a major soccer stadium in Istanbul after fans had gone home, in an attack that caused fatalities and wounded at least 20 police officers, Turkish authorities said. A private television channel put the wounded at nearly 70.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a statement saying “unfortunately we have martyrs and wounded” but did not specify the number.

One of the blasts was thought to be a car bomb and the second appeared to have been caused by a suicide bomber.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Police cordoned off the area as smoke rose from behind the newly built Vodafone Arena Stadium, known colloquially as Besiktas Stadium after the local team and neighborhood. Witnesses also heard gunfire after the explosions.

The first and larger explosion took place about 10:30 p.m. after the home team Besiktas beat visitor Bursaspor 2-1 in the Turkish Super League. Erdogan said the timing of the attack aimed to claim as many lives as possible.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who gave the initial casualty toll of 20 police officers, rushed from Ankara to Istanbul.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. This year, Istanbul has witnessed bombings attributed by authorities to the Islamic State group or claimed by Kurdish militants.

“It is thought to be a car bomb at a point where our special forces police were located, right after the match at the exit where Bursaspor fans” had earlier left, Soylu was quoted as saying by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. “We have no information on the number of dead. God willing, we hope there won’t be any.”

[ MORE: La Liga — Real Madrid go 35 games unbeaten, set new club record ]

Speaking later to reporters in Istanbul, he said the first explosion took place on a hill adjacent to and overlooking the stadium. The second explosion struck Macka Park and was believed to be a suicide bomb.

The private NTV channel reported that the target of the first attack was a bus for riot police and said nearly 70 wounded were taken to hospitals.

Television images showed more than a dozen ambulances on a street hugging the stadium and a police helicopter flying overhead with its searchlights on. The window glass of nearby buildings was shattered by the blasts and coated the pavement. Investigators, including Istanbul Police Chief Mustafa Caliskan, were quickly on the scene.

The Besiktas sports club “strongly condemned” terrorism and the attack in a statement posted on its website.

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Bursaspor said none of the wounded were fans and issued a statement saying “we wish a speedy recovery to our wounded citizens.”

Turkey’s radio and television board issued a temporary coverage ban citing national security concerns. It said “to avoid broadcasts that can result in public fear, panic or chaos, or that will serve the aims of terrorist organizations.”

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin were also notified about the attack, Anadolu said.

La Liga: Real Madrid sets club record with 35 games without a loss

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 10:  Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid scores their 3rd goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 10, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Leave a comment

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Real Madrid set a new club record after a 35th consecutive match without a loss by beating Deportivo La Coruna 3-2 on another Sergio Ramos stoppage-time winner on Saturday.

Ramos, who scored an injury-time equalizer at Barcelona in the last round, headed in a corner kick after 90 minutes were up to maintain Madrid’s six-point lead over Barcelona atop the Spanish league.

Madrid appeared to have the milestone well in hand after Alvaro Morata gave the hosts the lead with a strike from distance, but former Madrid youth player Joselu Sanmartin went on for Deportivo and scored twice in a three-minute span to force Madrid into fight-back mode.

With Cristiano Ronaldo and several other first-choice players unavailable, Madrid needed little-used Mariano to level at 2-2 in the 84th before Ramos snatched the winner.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Under coach Zinedine Zidane, Madrid hasn’t lost since April 6 when it fell 2-1 at German side Wolfsburg in the Champions League knockout rounds. Madrid recovered from that setback to win its record 11th European Cup.

The previous unbeaten streak for the club founded in 1902 stood at 34 games from 1989, set by a side coached by Leo Beenhakker. Barcelona holds the mark for all Spanish clubs of 39 games in a row without a defeat which Madrid ended last season.

With Madrid set to travel to Japan to play the Club World Cup, Zidane opted to leave Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric off his squad. Gareth Bale was also missing while he recovers from a foot injury.

And if it weren’t for another dose of Ramos’ heroics, the decision to rest so many of his best players would have cost Zidane a setback at the Santiago Bernabeu. Instead, Ramos added to his reputation as Madrid’s stoppage-time savoir just a week after earning a valuable draw at Camp Nou.

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona halted its skid of three consecutive draws in the league.

But first, Messi helped set up Luis Suarez for the 59th-minute opener, when he threaded a pass between four defenders to meet Jordi Alba’s run into the area. The left back squared the ball for Luis Suarez to tap home.

In similar fashion, Alba set up Messi to side-foot in his first goal in the 73rd. Messi got his second goal in stoppage time, when he took on three defenders, picked his spot and rifled home a left-footed strike.

Messi went to the top of the league scoring table with 11. Suarez pulled level with Madrid’s Ronaldo with 10.

“We knew that once we scored the first goal the match would open up for us, and thankfully the goal came soon enough,” Suarez said.

Promoted Osasuna remained bottom and winless at home since its return to the top tier.

In-form Real Sociedad climbed into fourth place and the Champions League positions after striker Willian Jose scored two early headers to take his tally to nine goals on the season.

After Dani Parejo pulled one back for Valencia from the spot in the 36th, Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves saved Carlos Vela’s penalty. The Brazilian goalie has saved 20 of 43 penalties he has faced in league competition.

The only drawback for Sociedad was Willian Jose leaving injured shortly after halftime, but his replacement Juan Jimenez added a third goal in injury time after Valencia lost Joao Cancelo to a second booking.

Valencia substitute Zakari Bakkali scored a solo goal in the final moments.

PL Sunday preview: Man United-Spurs; Chelsea, Liverpool in action

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08: Christian Eriksen of Tottenham Hotspur reacts after missing a chance during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on August 8, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Four of the Premier League’s top six sides are in action on Sunday. Chelsea would go top of the PL with a win, while Tottenham Hotspur could climb as high as third, if Liverpool fail to go within a point of Arsenal for second. Manchester United, on the other hand, are falling away from the top-five pack with each passing week.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion — 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Chelsea’s eight-game winning streak is on the line when West Brom visit Stamford Bridge. Having won those eight games by a combined score of 22-2, Antonio Conte‘s side has hit its stride since the Italian manager switch to a three-man defense after losing to Arsenal on Sept. 24. Diego Costa is tied for the league lead in goals scored (11, alongisde Alexis Sanchez), and Eden Hazard (8 goals) looks much more like his 2014-15 self than the 2015-16 version on display last season. The last time West Brom won away to Chelsea in league action, the date was Sept. 30, 1978.

INJURIES: Chelsea — OUT: Oscar (illness), John Terry (leg), Kurt Zouma (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: David Luiz (knee) | West Brom — OUT: Saido Berahino (fitness)

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester shock Man City; Arsenal go top ]

Manchester United vs. Tottenham — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After winning two in a row at Old Trafford, in 2012 and 2014, Tottenham are without a point (or a goal) in their last two trips to the Theater of Dreams — something Mauricio Pochettino‘s side will be looking to rectify and strengthen their case for a top-four finish this season. Spurs bounced back from their first defeat of the season, to Chelsea two weeks ago, with a 5-0 thumping of Swansea City, a game in which Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen each scored twice. As for United, who are three PL games without a win (all 1-1 draws), a return to the UEFA Champions League is quickly slipping away for Jose Mourinho’s side, now six points back of fifth-place Spurs, and nine back of third-and fourth-place Liverpool and Manchester City.

INJURIES: Man United — OUT: Chris Smalling (toe), Luke Shaw (undisclosed), James Wilson (knee surgery) | Tottenham — OUT: Vincent Janssen (ankle), Erik Lamela (hip)

[ MORE: La Liga — Real Madrid go 35 games unbeaten, set new club record ]

Southampton vs. Middlesbrough — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com

With their Europa League campaign put to rest prematurely this week, it’s time for a strong reaction by Southampton with 16th-place Middlesbrough visiting St. Mary’s Stadium. Currently 12th in the PL, Saints have just one win three goals to show for their efforts in their last six games (never scoring multiple goals in a game during that time). On the other side, Boro are four games unbeaten away from home (all draws), against the likes of West Ham United, Arsenal, Man City and Leicester City, though much of Aitor Karanka‘s top attacking talent could be unavailable on Sunday.

INJURIES: Southampton — OUT: Matthew Targett (hamstringe); RETURNING: Dusan Tadic (nose) | Boro — QUESTIONABLE: Alvaro Negredo (hamstring), Gaston Ramirez (foot), Jordan Rhodes (groin), George Friend (knee)

[ MORE: Bundesliga — Bayern Munich back on top; RB Leipzig finally lose ]

Liverpool vs. West Ham — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After throwing away a pair of two-goal leads away to Bournemouth last weekend, Liverpool could use a bounce-back of their own, otherwise they could be seven points off the PL’s top spot by weekend’s end. With wins over the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal already in the bag this season, the Reds’ two losses have come at the hands of Bournemouth and Burnley, two sides presently residing in the bottom half of the table. West Ham will visit Anfield as the 18th-place side in the PL with just two points from their last five league games, having dropped into the relegation zone following Swansea City’s victory over Sunderland on Saturday.

INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Philippe Coutinho (ankle), Daniel Sturridge (calf), Danny Ings (knee surgery), Sheyi Ojo (fitness), Joe Gomez (fitness); QUESTIONABLE: Sadio Mane (knock), Joel Matip (ankle) | West Ham — OUT: