Messi

Defenses be damned, Messi keeps doing the impossible

6 Comments

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.

[All 2014 World Cup news]

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.

Qatar to set up desert tent camp to house World Cup fans

Sepp Blatter, FIFA
AP Photo/Keystone/Walter Bieri, File
1 Comment

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) The committee organizing the 2022 World Cup in Qatar plans to try out a “fan village” that could house up to 2,000 soccer spectators in Arabian desert tents.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy said Tuesday it is seeking bids to develop a pilot project near the Sealine Beach resort south of the capital, Doha.

[ MORE: NCAA star’s fastest hat trick ]

It will offer different types of accommodation in 350 temporary tents and 300 permanent tents, along with big viewing screens and other entertainment options. A total of five fan villages could eventually be built.

Qatar is racing to build hotels and other infrastructure needed to host the games. Visitor accommodation in Qatar is currently dominated by higher-end hotels in Doha.

Once more, with feeling: Who could be the next England manager?

MANSFIELD, ENGLAND - JULY 19:  Steve Bruce manager of Hull City during the pre-season friendly match between Mansfield Town and Hull City at the One Call Stadium on July 19, 2016 in Mansfield, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)"n
Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images
3 Comments

It seems like mere months ago we were discussing who would take over for Roy Hodgson as the next manager of England.

That’s obviously because it was just 67 days ago that Sam Allardyce was hired as the next manager of the Three Lions, and 22 days since he oversaw what would be his only match in charge: a 1-0 win in Slovakia.

[ MORE: Ranieri laughs off England speculation ]

Now Allardyce’s mouth has engineered his exit from the job. How much has the landscape changed for managerial candidates?

Not too much. In no particular order, let’s look through some of the same names we studied this summer:

Steve Bruce — The ex-Hull City boss interviewed for the gig before Allardyce was hired. Is it as simple as going with choice No. 2?

Jurgen Klinsmann — The USMNT coach is again being listed by the oddsmakers despite the fact that England didn’t contact U.S. Soccer regarding an interview last time around. Has anything changed?

Gareth Southgate — The caretaker boss has worked with several of these players when they were U-20 and U-21 players, with his only other managerial experience coming with Middlesbrough between 2006-09.

Alan Pardew — The Palace man fancies himself for the job, that’s for sure. Would England really hire a ‘look at me’ man for such a high-profile position?

Eddie Howe — Bournemouth, and maybe Arsenal, fans won’t want to hear it, but the young manager would be a terrific choice for the job. But would he like running a team that doesn’t entail weekly game prep?

Harry Redknapp — If you’re looking for Pardew, only older and somehow even more sure of himself.

[ MORE: Dempsey out for 2016 ]

Other names on the oddmakers’ books are ex-Spain boss Vicente del Bosque, current Arsenal man Arsene Wenger, and Manuel Pellegrini (who is with Chinese club Hebei China Fortune). Leicester’s Claudio Ranieri has also been mentioned.

Allardyce’s issues really did no favors to club football in England, let alone country. The 61-year-old was hired in July, when clubs could’ve addressed their manager leaving better. Now in late September, the next England coach could wreak havoc on a PL team.

England hosts Malta on Oct. 8 in its second World Cup qualifier, before visiting Slovenia three days later.

Man City: Guardiola updates De Bruyne, Kompany injury status

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20:  Vincent Kompany and Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City talk during a training session at the City Football Academy on October 20, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kevin De Bruyne has been as valuable an attacker as any in the Premier League season, so his injury suffered this weekend is quite a big deal.

There were fears that Manchester City’s Belgian attacker would be gone for more than a month, but manager Pep Guardiola has quelled those concerns to an extent.

[ MORE: NCAA star’s fastest hat trick ]

De Bruyne will miss Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League match against Celtic, which shouldn’t bother the club too much, though his absence Sunday against Tottenham Hotspur could be felt more keenly.

Guardiola said that both De Bruyne and his Belgian teammate, Vincent Kompany, should be back in two to three weeks time. In De Bruyne’s case, Guardiola’s specifically mentioned after the international break. That puts him in line for an Oct. 15 trip to Everton.

The manager also related that he’s excited for his first trip to Celtic Park, as he’s not been to Glasgow to face Celtic in his career.

From ManCity.com:

“Everyone talks to me about the atmosphere, I’m looking forward to playing here. I know how strong they are here. I spoke with my old players, and they have said this is a special environment.”

Kickoff from Scotland is 2:45 p.m. ET.

Champions League preview: Arsenal match sees Xhaka vs. Xhaka; Man City hosts Celtic

ST ALBANS, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Manager Arsene Wenger of Arsenal talks to Granit Xhaka during an Arsenal training session ahead of the Champions League Group A match between Arsenal and Basel at London Colney on September 27, 2016 in St Albans, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Leave a comment

There are some absolute beauties on tap for Wednesday in the UEFA Champions League, with two Premier League clubs in play and a pair of matches pitting top teams from Germany and Spain.

[ MORE: UCL Tuesday roundup ]

All Wednesday matches kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET.

Celtic vs. Manchester City

Having been hammered 7-0 at home by Barcelona, Celtic’s “reprieve” is a trip to face Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. Brendan Rodgers will need to pull every trick out of his hat to avoid another blowout, as City had little trouble in dispatching a solid Borussia Monchengladbach side 4-0.

Arsenal vs. FC Basel

Both Group A matches were 1-1 draws to open the stage, though few expect draws on day 2. That’s because giants Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain move onto perceived lesser lights in Basel and Ludogorets Razgrad.

The Gunners are flying, having gotten their toughest fixture out of the way in a 1-1 draw at PSG. Arsene Wenger‘s crew is fresh off a 3-0 thumping of Chelsea, and will be aware of Basel’s best: Serey Die, Birkir Bjarnason, and Taulant Xhaka, brother of Arsenal’s Granit. That’s right… all the Xhakas.

Atletico Madrid vs. Bayern Munich

A road goal led Diego Simeone’s Atleti past Bayern in last year’s UCL semifinal, and the Bavarians will hope for a better fate under new boss Carlo Ancelotti.

Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Barcelona

Man, this group. A very good Gladbach side will have to rebound from a 4-0 loss to Man City by hosting Barcelona. The good news for the Germans is that Barcelona will be without Leo Messi, though that mattered little in Barca’s 5-0 win in La Liga play this weekend.

Elsewhere
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Napoli vs. Benfica
Besiktas vs. Dynamo Kyiv
FC Rostov vs. PSV Eindhoven