Defenses be damned, Messi keeps doing the impossible


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.

Three things we learned from Leicester City vs. Man United

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Leicester City drew 1-1 with Manchester United on Saturday in a game dominated by one man: Jamie Vardy.

[ MORE: Twitter reacts to Vardy ]

He set a new record and the King Power Stadium erupted, while United and Leicester battled it out in a fair draw.

[ MORE: PL Saturday roundup ]

Here’s three things we learned from the KP.


He did it. Heading into this game all the talk was about Vardy and if the 28-year-old could set a new PL record of scoring in 11 consecutive games. Well, he did.

From Stocksbridge Park Steels, Halifax Town, Fleetwood Town and now Leicester City, Vardy has always scored goals but the one he scored against Manchester United on Saturday has placed him in the record books. Reacting to the feat live on Sky Sports after the game, Vardy rolled out the cliches but showed a little bit of emotion.

“I am obviously delighted but the main thing was the performance,” Vardy said. “I think we put a really good shift in today and a point was a fair result. We have a lot of pace in the team and counter attacking is a big advantage for us. We have come straight from a corner. It was unbelievable. I think I got a bit carried away with myself!”

When asked afterwards what he was shouting when wheeling away in celebration, Vardy said “I can’t repeat it to be honest with you” and then elaborated on what it has been like this week with the pressure on his shoulders.

“Obviously if I let it get to me then it will effect my performance so I’ve just been keeping my head down and not let it sink in my head and just concentrate on it and that it was just another game we wanted to get three points in,” Vardy added.

The next record for Vardy to break is from the 1931-32 English top-flight season. Before the PL was formed Sheffield United’s Jimmy Dunne scored in 12-straight games. Let’s see if Vardy can continue this incredible run when Leicester face Swansea City next Saturday, but all that matters right now is that he holds the record in the PL and has come from absolutely nowhere to do something no other player has done in PL history. Remarkable. Memorable. Magnificent.


Right on the stroke of half time the atmosphere fell a little flat at the KP as Bastian Schweinsteiger headed home to make it 1-1. After the euphoria of Vardy giving United the lead, the away side battled back against the home crowd and were able to dig deep to get on level terms. For the second week running in the PL they went on the road and ground out a result. Of course Louis Van Gaal‘s side would’ve preferred a win but as the game wore on they looked the more likely to win as Memphis flashed a shot over and Matteo Darmian smashed an effort inches over in stoppage time.

At the back Chris Smalling marshaled a three-man central defensive unit impressively — apart from Vardy’s goal where Ashley Young and Darmian let him get ghost in-behind too easily — but David De Gea was still forced into a great save from Leonardo Ulloa in the 66th minute when the Leicester forward should’ve scored. Once again United flattered to deceive in the final third and that will be a worry for LVG, but they showed grit and determination to gain a point on the road at high-flying Leicester. It is tough to break down United and they say all championships are won with a great defense but the lack of creative flair up front is concerning.


One of the main reasons why that flair wasn’t there, once again, was that Wayne Rooney had another game to forget. United’s captain and talisman started off in a central striking role with Anthony Martial but often in the first half he was dropping deep on the left to pick up the ball and although he sprayed a few nice passes out wide there was no swagger, verve or conviction in his actions. This is a player who captains his country, has been in the PL for over a decade and will break many records by the time his career comes to an end. Right now though, it’s hard to see how Rooney keeps being selected for club and country.

Rooney, 30, is in a slump. He’s scored just twice in 12 Premier League outings this season and when he was substituted in the 68th minute on Saturday, it backed up the recent quotes from LVG stating that his skipper is not a guaranteed starter. It’s not just Rooney that is lacking flair but United in general look lackluster when they have possession and make it too easy for opponents to get back into their shape and defend with 10-men behind the ball.

Playing Rooney as a striker or in the hole hasn’t worked for LVG this season. Is it time he stopped playing him altogether?

Premier League roundup: Man City, Leicester level on points; Magpies into drop zone

during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Leicester, England.
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A lot of the big guns are playing on Sunday, but that didn’t stop Saturday’s Premier League action from bringing us a mix of history and unlikelihood.

[ WATCH: USMNT’s Johnson scores brace in Bundesliga play ]

Leicester’s star striker broke a Premier League record, and the Foxes are still tied for the most points in the league, behind on Man City on goal differential. Manchester United failed in its quest to reclaim the PL lead, while Newcastle United fell into the drop zone.

That and more, below…

Leicester City 1-1 Manchester UnitedRECAP

Jamie Vardy stands alone as the model of Premier League goal-scoring consistency (at least in one run). The Leicester City man scored early to give him goals in 11-straight games, breaking the record he shared with Ruud van Nistelrooy. Bastian Schweinsteiger found the equalizer for United before the second half drifted into Snooze City. Leicester remains level on points with Man City, while United is a point behind the leaders.

Crystal Palace 5-1 Newcastle United — RECAP

The Magpies are back in the drop zone after an embarrassing display against old boss Alan Pardew at Selhurst Park. Yannick Bolasie and James McArthur each scored twice for the Eagles, who climbed to sixth with the win. Wilfried Zaha also scored in the win.

Sunderland 2-0 Stoke City — RECAP

Ryan Shawcross had the Potters playing a man down for nearly the entire second half, and Sam Allardyce‘s Black Cats now have picked up two wins versus shorthanded sides after Patrick Van Aanholt and Duncan Watmore scored to pull Sunderland out of the relegation zone.

SWANSEA, WALES - NOVEMBER 21: Bournemouth player Junior Stanislas in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Liberty Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Bournemouth 3-3 Everton — RECAP

Junior Stanislas‘ day to remember likely made an indelible imprint on the Dean Court crowd, as Bournemouth came back from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits against high-flying Everton. The Toffees led by two at the break before Andy Smith and Stanislas equalized by the 87th minute. Ross Barkley‘s 95th minute goal caused a delay as Everton fans flooded the pitch, and Stanislas made them pay in the eighth minute of stoppage. Madness. Wonderful madness.

Southampton 1-3 Manchester CityRECAP

St. Mary’s was the scene for Man City’s rise back to the top of the table. Aleksandar Kolarov, Kevin De Bruyne and Fabian Delph scored for the leaders, while Shane Long netted Saints’ only goal. Southampton drops to ninth, behind Everton and Palace.

Aston Villa 2-3 WatfordRECAP

The Hornets survived a brief scare from the Villans to pick up three points on the road and rise to 11th on the table. Odion Ighalo scored early before Micah Richards even things up just before halftime. An Alan Hutton own goal restored Watford’s advantage, and Troy Deeney gave them breathing room in the 85th minute. Jordan Ayew pulled Villa to within one in the 89th minute, but it was not to be for Remi Garde’s crew. Villa sits last with a mere five points through 14 games.

Leicester City 1-1 Manchester United: Vardy makes history

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  • Vardy breaks Van Nistelrooy’s record
  • Schweinsteiger finds equalizer
  • De Gea, Schmeichel stand tall in second half

The top-end tilt between Leicester City and Manchester United lived up to its billing for 45 minutes before petering out in a 1-1 draw at King Power Stadium.

That won’t change the enduring memory of the match for the Leicester City faithful, as Jamie Vardy made Premier League history by scoring in his 11th-consecutive game to break United legend Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record.

Leicester is level on points with first-place Manchester City, but behind on goal differential. United is a point off the pace, in third.

[ WATCH: Vardy’s record-setting goal ]

Vardy’s took a tidy touch before belting a low shot past David De Gea‘s right leg, sending the King Power Stadium crowd into a state of euphoria with a 1-0 lead against the PL powers.

Schweinsteiger leveled things before halftime, powering in a corner from Daley Blind.

[ MORE: Twitter reacts to Vardy ]

[ MORE: Click here for full lineups, stats, box score ]  

United should’ve gone up off an Ashley Young free kick in the 49th minute. Schweinsteiger forced Kasper Schmeichel into a save, and Wayne Rooney headed a begging rebound wide of the goal.

Leicester had its chance to go up denied by a fine point-blank save by De Gea, as Leonardo Ulloa was denied by the Spaniard.

The case against McClaren: Should Newcastle United make a change?

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Steve McClaren manager of Newcastle United scratches his head  during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Newcastle United at Selhurst Park on November 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Newcastle United’s supporters have earned the descriptor “always-proud” over the years, but it’s front office has dipped into “once-proud” category with a series of embarrassing seasons.

And that’s what makes it so tricky to decide whether new boss Steve McClaren deserves the sack after just 14 games in charge of the Northeast side.

[ MATCH RECAP: Crystal Palace 5-1 Newcastle United ]

Despite embattled owner Mike Ashley opening his purse strings this summer — adding Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba — McClaren has posted a 2W-4D-8L start to life in the Premier League. The wins have come against new boys Norwich City and Bournemouth, and McClaren has seen his team dispatched from the League Cup by a Championship side.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Steve McClaren manager of Newcastle United leaves the pitch after his team's 1-5 defeat in the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Newcastle United at Selhurst Park on November 28, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

The 54-year-old earned a shot back at the top largely on the merits of his apprenticeship under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and an Eredivisie crown with Twente in 2009.

After poor, short spells at Wolfsburg and Nottingham Forest, McClaren helped his star rise with Derby County from 2013-15. But he never was able to push the club over the top, fading down the stretch last season.

The Premier League is a win-now entity, and Newcastle is well behind the pace of its top-flight brethren. It’s defending is miserable, and the club has no answers for teams that attack with vigor (See the five goals allowed to Sergio Aguero, last week’s 3-0 loss to Leicester City and today’s embarrassment against former boss Alan Pardew).

[ PARDEW: I don’t want to talk poorly about Newcastle ]

Even former NUFC outcast Luuk De Jong, who failed on Tyneside but is revitalized in Holland, is throwing shade at his brother Siem’s side.

Back in the relegation zone, Newcastle has to enter crisis mode after this aimless run through a span of fixtures that demanding points. Yes, they dominated at Sunderland and lost on an unearned red card, but the Magpies also beat Bournemouth despite getting thoroughly out-classed.

With Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton in three of the Magpies’ next four matches — and raise your hand if you think McClaren will out-manage Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp or Roberto Martinez — Newcastle needs to plan for two relegation scraps against Aston Villa and West Brom.

Now could be time to put a caretaker manager into the fray, and find someone who’s helmed a proper relegation fight in the Premier League. Because when even Sam Allardyce is finding points from a substandard group of players at Sunderland, your rival, it’s hard to imagine this can look much worse.

But going back to years of selling their best players — Yohan Cabaye, Andy Carroll, Demba Ba — and letting second-rate (and worse) managers languish in charge, can it really be put on McClaren? That’s the question Ashley has to ask.

Given their schedule, Newcastle has little chance to be out of the relegation battle come New Year’s Day. So who do the Magpies want leading them out come 2016?