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.

USWNT cruises past Costa Rica in final pre-Olympic warm up

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 09: Julie Johnston #8 of the United States shoots past Nomoumelelo Nyandeni #18 of South Africa during a friendly match at Soldier Field on July 9, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The United States defeated South Africa 1-0. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The U.S. Women’s National Team wasn’t really lacking confidence heading into Friday night’s clash with Costa Rica, but the squad’s utter dominance certainly didn’t hurt things as Jill Ellis’ group gets ready to head to Brazil for next month’s Olympic Games.

[ MORE: Pulisic says Klinsmann links to England job made sense ]

The USWNT captured a 4-0 win against Costa Rica in the side’s final send-off match before the Olympics, extending the no. 1 ranked team in the world’s unbeaten streak to 15 matches.

It only took a quarter of an hour the USWNT to find the lead, but it always looked like it was coming for Jill Ellis’ group. Meghan Klingenburg made a great run deep into the Costa Rica area, and played a perfect square pass across the face of goal for Crystal Dunn to give the U.S. the lead in the 15th minute.

Mallory Pugh got her name on the scoreboard in the 22nd minute after making a brilliant darting run forward and beating the Costa Rican goalkeeper at the near post.

The U.S. pushed their advantage to 3-0 on the stroke of halftime when Becky Sauerbrunn’s free kick was headed home by Carli Lloyd in first-half stoppage time.

With a number of chances in the second half that didn’t take the right bounce for the USWNT, Christen Press made no mistake from close range in the 79th minute and gave the home nation a four-goal lead.

Dunn continues to impress on the international stage, and nearly gave the U.S. an advantage after just seven minutes. The 24-year-old gathered the ball inside the penalty box before unleashing a strong effort that struck the crossbar and stayed out.

The U.S. found another dangerous opportunity three minutes later, when Carli Lloyd was brought down from behind on the edge of the penalty area. Costa Rica defender Katherine Alvarado was shown a yellow card for the rash tackle, but the USWNT couldn’t make anything of the ensuing free kick.

While Costa Rica put in a valiant effort against their competition, the Ticas were no match for the Americans, and failed to muster up any shots on target throughout the night. The 29th ranked team in the FIFA World Rankings struggled to move the ball past midfield for most of the outing largely due to the USWNT’s constant press.

UEFA confirms 3 entries for presidential election

SAINT DENIS, FRANCE - JULY 08:  In this handout image provided by UEFA, UEFA Vice President Angel Maria Villar addresses the UEFA Euro 2016 closing press conference at Stade de France on July 8, 2016 in Saint Denis, France. (Photo by Handout/UEFA via Getty Images)
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NYON, Switzerland (AP) Contenders from Slovenia, the Netherlands and Spain have entered the UEFA presidential contest to replace the banned Michel Platini.

[ MORE: Sam Allardyce officially named England manager ]

UEFA confirmed the three national federation presidents on Friday: Aleksander Ceferin, Michael van Praag, and Angel Maria Villar.

[ MORE: Steve Bruce has resigned at Hull City ahead of PL season ]

All must pass an integrity check to be accepted as a candidate for a job which includes the role of FIFA vice president.

UEFA’s 55 member federations will vote on Sept. 14 in Athens.

Van Praag and Villar are currently UEFA vice presidents, and Ceferin is a relative newcomer to European football politics.

Van Praag stood against Sepp Blatter for the FIFA presidency last year, then withdrew days before the vote.

Villar, who already is a FIFA vice president, has been a member of FIFA’s ruling committee for 18 years and leader of Spanish football for 28 years.

The winner will complete Platini’s third four-year presidential term which expires in early 2019.

A four-nation group of Nordic federations, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, said in June it would support Ceferin. The group also wants to co-host the 2024 European Championship.

UEFA should make that hosting decision during the current presidential term.

In a separate election due Sept. 14, there are two contenders for the UEFA position of a women’s delegate to the FIFA ruling council.

Evelina Christillin of Italy and Laura McAllister will also be subject to a FIFA eligibility check, UEFA said.

Nottingham Forest signs former Toronto FC defender Damien Perquis

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13:  David Villa #7 of New York City FC kicks the ball past Damien Perquis #24 of Toronto FCat Yankee Stadium on March 13, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Damien Perquis has found a new home after recently leaving MLS side Toronto FC in search of a new challenge.

[ MORE: Man City expected to land Everton defender John Stones ]

Nottingham Forest confirmed the signing of Perquis on Friday after making 37 appearances for Toronto dating back to the beginning of the 2015 MLS season.

[ MORE: Crystal Palace has entered race for West Brom’s Saido Berahino ]

Perquis, 32, began his career with French side Troyes, and played domestically in his homeland for over 10 years before moving to La Liga side Real Betis.

After playing briefly for France at the Under-21 level, Perquis opted to switch his national team allegiance to Poland and appeared in 14 matches for the White Eagles between 2011-2013.

Report: Man City expected to land Stones for $65 million

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28:  Ross Barkley (L) of Everton celebrates scoring his team's third goal with his team mate John Stones (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Everton at Vitality Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Everton appears set to lose one of its most prized young players, albeit for a pretty penny.

[ MORE: Steve Bruce leaves Hull City prior to Premier League season ]

After heavily pursuing England centerback John Stones this summer, Manchester City looks to be closing in on a deal for the 22-year-old, according to the Telegraph.

[ MORE: Wijnaldum officially completes move to Liverpool

The Toffees had placed a fee of roughly $65 million on Stones as more teams became interested in the young defender, but the sizable fee doesn’t seem to have swayed City’s front office from pursuing Stones.

Since taking over as the club’s new manager this summer, Pep Guardiola has been adamant about acquiring Stones, particularly with centerback being one of City’s biggest needs. Currently, the squad boasts captain Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala as their only true options to man the central defending positions.

The Citizens and their relentless pursuit for Stones will likely leave Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona searching elsewhere to improve their defenses. The Blues were favorites to acquire Stones last year, however, Chelsea had its bid of nearly $48 million turned down by Everton.