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.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.

Klopp “angry, surprised” by Liverpool defeat to Swansea

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Liverpool fans might disagree — Jurgen Klopp certainly does, tonight, at least — but the beauty of the Premier League is that you can end the runaway leaders’ bid for an unbeaten season, then lose to the last-place team in the league, in back-to-back games.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

This, of course, leaves Klopp, Liverpool’s fiery, combustible manager, more than a little hot under the collar. Following Monday’s 1-0 loss away to bottom-of-the-league Swansea City, Klopp pulled no punches in describing the emotions he feels after such a result.

“Frustrated,” “angry” and “surprised” quickly came to mind after seeing his side’s 14-game PL unbeaten run come to an end. Despite creating 21 chances on the night, the likes of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain managed to put just four on target, which was undoubtedly the genesis of his frustration, anger and surprise — quotes from the BBC:

“I’m frustrated and I’m angry because it was not a good game. We lost the game in the first half. We didn’t do what we wanted to do. It hasn’t happened too often so I didn’t expect that, I was quite surprised. Because of the first half we weren’t flying and they were.

“We made pressure at the end but not enough to score. The last situation was unlucky but if we got a point it would still have been a bad game for us, and it was the opposite of what we wanted. That happens from time to time and it’s never the right moment and like it should be.

“It’s not that we threw it away. Swansea are fighting for their life and we’ve no problem with that, we had a problem with our offensive motions. It’s not what we came here for tonight. We have nothing, and that’s our fault.”

Swansea 1-0 Liverpool: Last-place Swans shock Reds

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  • Swansea shock Liverpool in game of few chances
  • Mawson sweeps home the winner — 40′
  • Reds’ 14-game PL unbeaten run ends
  • Swans now 2W-1D-1L under Carvalhal

From the high of snapping Manchester City’s unbeaten run (30 games dating back to last season) and bid for an unbeaten 2017-18 Premier League season, to being beaten by last-place Swansea City… in back-to-back games… all in the span of eight days.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

On Monday, Swansea topped Liverpool, 1-0 at the Liberty Stadium, to claim just their fifth PL victory all season; two of the five have come in the first three weeks of new manager Carlos Carvalhal’s tenure (four games).

Virgil Van Dijk cost Liverpool $100 million, but he’s yet to arrest the Reds’ woeful set-piece defending. It was the big Dutchman who failed to head the ball clear from the Swans’ 40th-minute corner kick. After an unfortunate bounce in the box, the ball fell to Mawson just 10 yards out. The young Welshman swept his right foot through the ball and Loris Karius could do nothing about it.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Liverpool’s first surefire chance of the second half came in the 60th minute, when Mohamed Salah delicately lifted just over the wall a free kick from 22 yards out. The ball quickly fell as it neared goal, but Lukasz Fabianski reacted quicker and pushed it over the crossbar at full-stretch to preserve the lead at 1-0.

Right on 94 minutes, with the referee staring at his watch, Roberto Firmino headed off Fabianski’s right-hand post and Adam Lallana missed an open-net follow-up, somehow booting the ball well over the bar from three yards out.

Despite holding over 70 percent of possession on the night, Liverpool put on target just four of their 21 total shots.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

With the defeat, Liverpool (47 points) fail to capitalize on Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-1 draw with Southampton on Sunday. Having ultimately gained a point in Round 24, Tottenham now trail Liverpool by just two points in the race for fourth. The two sides meet in two weeks’ time, on Sunday, Feb. 4, at Anfield.

Swansea (20 points), meanwhile, have done nearly enough to climb out of the PL cellar, but remain 20th out of 20 teams on goal differential. Three points stand between them and safety.