Messi

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.

Chelsea 5-1 Newcastle United: Blues cruise past hapless Magpies

during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on February 13, 2016 in London, England.
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  • Costa opens scoring in fifth minute
  • His 8th goal in 10 appearances
  • Magpies back into drop zone on goal diff.
  • Townsend strikes late to break shutout

Diego Costa and Pedro scored before the match was nine minutes old, and Willian put an exclamation point on a wild first half in the 17th minute as Chelsea battered Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Pedro added another in the second half before Baba Rahman tallied to make it 5-0, and that’s how it finished at the Bridge. Chelsea now has 33 points, and is within two points of 10th and nine back of fifth place Manchester United.

Newcastle is back in 18th, lower than Norwich City on goal differential. Andros Townsend scored late for the Magpies.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It took barely more than four minutes for Chelsea to take the lead, as Costa burst past Steven Taylor to slide Willian’s pass past Rob Elliot. 1-0.

Pedro doubled the advantage when he took advantage of 20-year-old Rolando Aarons, who was forced to play right back despite starting as a right wing under Alan Pardew. It was an awful pass regardless of his normal position, and Pedro picked it off and went the distance.

Andros Townsend cut in from the left to provide a counter threat, but his low shot was gobbled up by Thibaut Courtois.

Still, 3-0 came first. Costa worked a long ball and then watched Fabricio Coloccini back off. Willian tore through an unmarking back line to push home an easy goal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Magpies found some life in the second half, as Chelsea had to cope with an injury to John Terry that moved Branislav Ivanovic inside and put Baba Rahman into the game.

Aleksandar Mitrovic absorbed a tricky cleat to his achilles, staying in the game to hit a low shot wide of goal.

But Pedro added another goal moments later on a counterattack (of sorts) and it was 4-0 in the 59th minute.

Townsend broke the shutout when he belted a left footed shot home late for his first ever Newcastle goal.

Suarez: I’d only play for Liverpool in the Premier League

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Luis Suarez has upset fans of every Premier League team by saying he’d never join their club.

[ MORE: Van Gaal downbeat after defeat ]

On Valentine’s Day weekend his heart belongs to one PL club: Liverpool.

Speaking to former Liverpool teammate Jamie Carragher on behalf of the Daily Mail, Suarez insisted he is loving life at reigning Spanish and European champions Barcelona.

But if the 29-year-old striker ever left the Nou Camp and came back to the PL he wouldn’t play for Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea. Oh no.

“I’d prefer to stay here [Barcelona] for many more years. I know it doesn’t always turn out that way. But if I had to return to the Premier League, I would only go to Liverpool,: Suarez said. “I wouldn’t go to another team. It wouldn’t be a move for money. I’d also love to play again for Ajax, as they allowed me to develop as a player in Europe.”

So, in 2019 once Suarez has won the Ballon d’Or at Barcelona and won four-straight UEFA Champions League titles, could he be back at Anfield to help attend to some unfinished business with Jurgen Klopp still in charge?

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Just a thought, but Suarez is obviously keen to repay the loyalty both Liverpool’s fans and the club have shown him over the years during many difficult moments on and off the pitch. At away stadiums across England he was lambasted by fans of the opposition and he obviously remembers that. Suarez was the subject of a cheeky bid from Arsenal and Arsene Wenger obviously admires him but the fact of the matter is, it would be shocking to see him leave Barcelona anytime soon.

Suarez still has plenty to give for Barca in the meantime as he has 36 goals in 34 appearances for the Catalan club this season so far.

Pardew, Palace lamenting “tricky run”; Without Premier League win in 2016

during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Watford at Selhurst Park on February 13, 2016 in London, England.
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“We are on a tricky run and need to fight out way out of this form.”

That’s how Alan Pardew is describing his club’s brutal form of early 2016. Crystal Palace has one point in its last seven matches, their streakiness matching what we expected from Pardew when he led Newcastle United through a topsy-turvy few seasons at St. James Park.

[ MATCH RECAP: Crystal Palace 1-2 Watford ]

Pardew says injuries and bad luck have hurt his side, and Yannick Bolasie‘s absence looms large in a midfield-vital Premier League. But Palace has managed just three points since Dec. 26 despite playing a manageable schedule of opponents.

Since beating Stoke at the Britannia on Dec. 19, this is Palace’s Premier League form:

Dec. 26 — 0-0 at Bournemouth
Dec. 28 — 0-0 vs. Swans
Jan. 3 — 0-3 vs. Chelsea
Jan. 12 — 0-1 at Villa
Jan. 16 — 0-4 at Man City
Jan. 23 — 1-3 vs. Spurs
Feb. 2 — 1-2 vs Bournemouth
Feb. 6 — 1-1 at Swans
Feb. 13 — 1-2 vs. Watford

Fortunately for Pardew, he has his old charges in Newcastle, Aston Villa and Norwich City not doing much to threaten a climb out of the drop zone. But Palace has gone from Top Four contender to bottom-half side in a month and a half.

WATCH: Chelsea’s three goals in 11 minutes have Newcastle defense in tatters

during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on February 13, 2016 in London, England.
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Diego Costa, Pedro and Willian are terrorizing Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, battering the Magpies by three goals.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

And the game’s not even a half-hour old as of posting time, so we’re just going to leave these videos right here, Toon Army.