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.

MLS preview: MLS Cup places to be booked on Sunday

Darlington Nagbe, Portland Timbers FC
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The last team to overcome a two-goal deficit in the second leg of a two-leg MLS Cup Playoffs tie was the 2004 Kansas City Wizards. On Sunday, two conference finals favorites — higher seeds, at least — will take their shot at rewriting the above piece of history in their bids to qualify for MLS Cup 2015.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, each the top seed in their respective conference and one-two finishers, respectively, for the Supporters’ Shield, have 90 minutes to overcome two very difference two-goal deficits against the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew SC.

Note: A player who accumulates his second yellow card (of the MLS Cup Playoffs) in the second leg of the Conference Championship series IS ELIGIBLE to play in MLS Cup, as playoff yellow card accumulation resets following the Conference Championships. (A red card, whether a straight red or two yellows, in the second leg still equals a suspension for MLS Cup.)

FC Dallas 1-3 Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

While history isn’t on the side of teams attempting to come back from two goals down in the second leg, FCD have one thing going for them: an away from the first leg — of course, they would have been better served to have not given away a third goal in the game’s dying minutes and headed home slight favorites with an away goal and a one-goal deficit. As things stand, though, 2-0 puts FCD through to MLS Cup — which they would host against Columbus Crew SC and play away to New York Red Bulls.

A big problem for FCD in the first leg was how much time Portland’s full backs, Alvas Powell and Jorge Villafana, spent overlapping into FCD’s defensive half. Because of this, FCD’s rabid wingers, most notably Fabian Castillo, were limited in their effect on the counter after being forced to drop so deep to defend. With Portland defending a two-goal lead on Sunday, look for Powell and Villafana to sit back quite a bit more, thus putting the keys to FCD’s season into the hands of Castillo and Mauro Diaz. The great thing about Diaz, if you’re an FCD supporter, is that he’s brilliant enough to singlehandedly pick teams apart whether they’re stretched all over the field or bunkered deep.

Regular season: POR 3-1 FCD (4/4); FCD 4-1 POR (7/25)
Injuries: FCD — OUT: Rolando Escobar (facial fracture) | POR — OUT: Ben Zemanski (knee)

New York Red Bulls 0-2 Columbus Crew SC — 7:30 p.m. ET, FS1

If FCD are standing on tenuous ground, the New York Red Bulls are running on quicksand. No away goal in the first leg, coupled with Kei Kamara‘s late goal to make it 2-0, means anything but a perfect performance on Sunday, and they’re out. 2-0 send the series to extra time, but here’s where it gets supremely tricky for the Red Bulls: a single Crew SC goal in the second leg means RBNY need four goals to advance. That would seem quite unlikely.

For the entirety of the 2015 season, RBNY’s greatest strength was their spine: Matt Miazga and Damien Perrinelle at center back, and Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins and Sacha Kljestan in midfield. In the first leg, the midfield trio had its worst game of the season — completely overwhelmed with pressure and unable to press high themselves — which put the center of defense — already down Perrinelle to a season-ending knee injury — under tons of pressure. From the moment Justin Meram hit the back of the net, eight seconds into the game, RBNY’s entire gameplan was out the window — they were forced to chase a goal they didn’t really want, and in turn gave up a second late on. They’ll need to start better in the second leg, set their high line of pressing much more quickly when turning the ball over, and attack the wings to limit the attacking impact of full backs Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis, who absolutely destroyed them in the first leg.

Regular season: CLB 1-2 RBNY (3/28); CLB 2-1 RBNY (7/4); RBNY 2-1 CLB (10/3)
Injuries: RBNY — OUT: Damien Perrinelle (knee), Chris Duval (broken leg) | CLB — OUT: Kristinn Steindorsson (knee)

Slaven Bilic wants West Ham to stop whining about missing Payet

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 24: Slaven Bilic manager of West Ham United looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Chelsea at Boleyn Ground on October 24, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Sometimes nominating the signing of the season is difficult to do until we get a glimpse of a team without their new addition. We’re seeing that this year as West Ham, who were in fifth position before summer signing Dimitri Payet went down with an ankle injury that could see him out for three months.

Without Payet, they looked lost in a 4-1 defeat to Spurs at White Hart Lane, and the void left in midfield was all anyone could talk about.

Slaven Bilic hates that.

“Losing Payet is a blow but we have two options: one is continue to talk about it and the other is to get together and play better even without him,” Bilic said prior to Sunday’s home matchup with West Brom. “He’s a player who has made a huge impact. He’s a key player for us and is doing the things that every club needs.”

Before the Spurs match, Bilic was adamant that the team was losing its best player. Now, he’s of the opposite tone.

“In my team I have enough players who can make his absence to feel it less,” Bilic said. “We have enough quality to play without Dimitri. We were hugely disappointed and angry with the way we played [against Tottenham].”

Jamie Vardy setting up academy to help discover non-league talent

during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Leicester City at St Mary's Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Southampton, England.
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In 2012, Jamie Vardy was playing non-league football for Fleetwood Town.

Today, he is the top scorer in the Premier League with Leicester City, and is currently on a record run of scoring in ten straight matches.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

Vardy’s meteoric rise is the stuff of fairytales, and now he is giving back to those who are trying to break through as he did a few years ago.

The 28-year-old striker has set up the V9 Academy, a program aimed at finding non-league talent and helping the players develop into “the next Jamie Vardy.”

I know there are players out there in a similar position to where I was that just need an opportunity,

More and more players are dropping out of the system early. For me, it was at Sheffield Wednesday when I was 16 because they thought I was too small. I remember how that felt and it’s difficult to come back from or even think about the professional game.

I’ve thought for some time that something could be done about it and after several conversations with my agent and my fiancee, Becky, we decided to set up V9 to unearth talent and give those players a shot – hopefully at earning professional contracts but also to learn what it takes to be a professional at the highest level.

In just his second season in the Premier League, Vardy has become one of the most prolific strikers in Europe, earning him Player of the Month honors for October as well as a call-up to the England national team.

Premier League Black Friday bargains: Players that might be up for sale

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 25:  Charlie Austin of QPR reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and West Ham United at Loftus Road on April 25, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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While most people are out looking for good deals on televisions and electronics on Black Friday, ProSoccerTalk is eyeing bargains on midfielders and strikers.

[ MORE: Transfer Rumor roundup ]

With the transfer window just over a month away, we’re taking a look at a few players that could be up for sale come January 1.

Charlie Austin (Queens Park Rangers)

One of the biggest surprises of the summer transfer window was that Charlie Austin stayed at QPR and didn’t move to a Premier League club. The English striker scored 18 goals in the PL last season, and a move away from Loftus Road seemed like a guarantee when QPR was relegated. However, Austin stayed loyal to the club and said he wanted to help them earn promotion back into the top flight.

Things aren’t going as planned though, as QPR sit 15th in the Championship and sacked manager Chris Ramsey earlier this month. Despite the club’s struggles, Austin has scored seven goals in 12 games, showing he is still a top talent. QPR turned down some offers for Austin before the season, but with his contract expiring in June, they may be willing to sell their striker for a discounted price, or risk him leaving on a free transfer in the summer.

Dwight Gayle (Crystal Palace)

Dwight Gayle has fallen out of favor at Palace, as the striker has been limited to mostly a bench role under Alan Pardew. That may work out well for some suitors, as his lack of playing time could bring down his market value a bit. He was close making a move away from Selhurst Park this summer, and it doesn’t look like he’s in line for a new deal. Gayle seems to have lost his way a bit, but is the type of player that would have a chip on his shoulder and be eager to prove he has what it takes to be a starting striker in the Premier League.

[ MORE: Top storylines to look out for in Week 14 of the Premier League ]

Jermain Defoe (Sunderland)

The 33-year-old Sunderland striker can still score goals, seen when he bagged the game-winner for the Black Cats against Crystal Palace last week. While Sunderland supporters would like to keep Defoe to help the club survive relegation, it has been reported the striker and manager Sam Allardyce don’t exactly see eye-to-eye. When asked about a possible January sale of Defoe, Big Sam didn’t help the situation by answering “Whatever happens, happens.” While he may have lost a bit of pace, Defoe is still the 11th-highest goalscorer in Premier League history, and seems to always be good for a goal in crunch-time.

Ravel Morrison (Lazio)

The 22-year-old has reportedly left his Italian club Lazio for “personal reasons” just months after joining the side in July. Morrison is one of those “What could have been?” stories, as he came up through the Manchester United academy pegged to be a star, only to have off-the-field issues put a damper in his career. He has previously played in the Premier League with West Ham, and played first-team football with Birmingham City and QPR in the Championship. With Morrison expected to return to England, a team could take a flyer on the mercurial talent and see if it pays off.

[ RELATED: Will Mourinho-Costa feud lead to transfer activity for Chelsea? ]

Emmanuel Adebayor (Unattached)

After being told he was not in Mauricio Pochettino‘s plans at Tottenham, Adebayor was happy to sit out and collect a paycheck, a pretty big paycheck that was reported to be upwards of $100,000 per week. He was eventually released from his contract in September, and many suspected the 31-year-old’s career was over. However, his name has begun to pop up in some transfer rumors for a possible return. The main question has to do with his attitude, and if he really wants to play anymore. If Adebayor were to return to the PL, he would get far less than his wages at Spurs, and could be a low-risk, high-reward option.