World Cup final focus: Argentina

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It hasn’t been pretty. It hasn’t been spectacular. But it’s been done.

Argentina is back in the World Cup final, and Lionel Messi is one win away from placing himself firmly in the conversation with Diego Maradona, something he’s never truly been able to do.

But there’s more – much more – to Argentina than Messi, and that’s what we’re here to break down.  So with the world’s biggest game nearly upon us, let’s take a look at the Argentinians.

Road to Rio
June 15, Group F vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina, W 2-1
June 21, Group F vs. Iran, W 1-0
June 25, Group F vs. Nigeria, W 3-2
July 1, Round of 16 vs. Switzerland, W 1-0
July 5, Quarterfinals vs. Belgium, W 1-0
July 9, Semifinals vs. Netherlands, D 0-0 (advanced 4-2 on penalties)

Form: The Argentinians have struggled to score goals, but defensively have been solid, having yet to trail a match for a single second this World Cup.

Stats
Possession: 59%
Pass accuracy: 80%
Shots: 95
Shots on target: 61
Goals from open play: 7
Goals from set pieces: 1

Leaders
Goals: Lionel Messi (4)
Assists: Messi (1), Gonzalo Higuain (1)
Tackles: Javier Mascherano (18), Marcos Rojo (12)
Recovered balls: Ezequiel Garay (44), Mascherano (42)
Distance covered: Mascherano (67.2 km), Pablo Zabaleta (65.6 km)

History
Tournament appearances: 16/20
Previous finals appearances: 3
Finals record: 2-1

Outline to victory: Hey remember way back when I said it wasn’t all about Lionel Messi? I was wrong. Argentina’s here, but they’re staggering into the Maracana. Only one man can beat the Germans, and that man hasn’t scored in the knockout stage yet.  Messi is the man to make everything happen, and teams know that. There’s a disconnect when he’s being covered by two or three defenders, and so far it’s mostly kept Argentina at bay. The team must do everything in its power to get him the opportunities he needs. Or he can just make his own, he’s quite good at that too.

In addition, they will struggle if the midfield wastes possession.  Argentina have had less than 50% possession in each of their last two matches, and it’s shown with just one goal in that time.  The defense has been spectacular, with Javier Mascherano the lynchpin despite playing out of position.

Premier League Preview: Crystal Palace vs. Burnley

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  • Palace unbeaten in 10 vs Burnley at home
  • Burnley has 1 goal from open play in last 6
  • Burnley has just 4 points on road all season

The old 40 point target is within grasp.

One more win for Crystal Palace would put them over the cusp, as Sam Allardyce leads his Eagles into battle against Burnley at Selhurst Park on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Palace’s recent form suggests they’ll do just that, with a massive surge of six wins in their last nine to boost them out of the relegation zone and into a push towards the table’s top half. Their last three wins have come against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool. However, they’re depleted in central defense, with Mamadou Sakho, Scott Dann, and James Tomkins all out injured.

Burnley, meanwhile, could get to 39 points with a win, a big boost in their bid to outrun those below them in the table. The Clarets are looking to buck the league’s worst road record, with just a single win and a single draw away from Turf Moor. They’ll be without Joey Barton, whose career could be over after an 18-month suspension for gambling. That’s a big miss for the Clarets, as Barton has played all but 10 minutes of their last 12 matches. Scott Arfield could be a candidate to replace Barton, with the 28-year-old a regular in the side before Barton’s arrival midseason.

What they’re saying

Allardyce on Burnley“I think he has built a very good football club from top to bottom on stability that he has brought to Burnley, he has made Burnley’s owners and directors look at the financial side of their club and they now see one that is financially secure. That money has been brought to the club by him getting them promoted to the Premier League, evolving at a nice, steady pace and as a club they have not panicked and been patient, which is a word that doesn’t happen in football anymore. If you look at the football dictionary, the word patient you can’t find anymore because there is none. But there is at Burnley.”

Burnley manager on survival“We have more points than we did ever in the Premier League and it’s now about taking it all the way. It’s now about everything we’ve learned over the season and delivering performances in these last four games. We, as a club, without a shadow of a doubt are in really good shape going into this last bunch of games. But we aren’t naïve enough to think it takes care of itself, because it doesn’t. We have to go and step on and take care of what we need to.”

Prediction

Burnley has been horrid away from home this season, and while they should stay up given the poor squads below them, Crystal Palace is playing too well to fall to lesser opposition at Selhurst Park. Christian Benteke will continue to feast as the Eagles win.

Robbie Mustoe: Tottenham are bosses in North London, for this season

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Ahead of Sunday’s North London derby (NBCSN, 11:30am ET), Robbie Mustoe spoke with ProSoccerTalk about Tottenham, Arsenal and whether there is a transition of power happening in North London.

Q: Are we seeing a power shift in North London between Tottenham and Arsenal?

Robbie Mustoe: I think it’s hard to really commit to that statement of a power shift because of the history and because of the revenues. I went back and checked just on the 2016 figures and Arsenal have so much more money coming in. Arsenal have 468 million euros of revenue and Spurs have 279 million. That’s almost 200 million euros in terms of difference. For a long-term power shift I still think it’s really hard for me to think that’s going to happen when there’s that difference in money.

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When you look at Spurs at the moment with their amazing training ground, their new stadium, a motivated owner and chairmen in Daniel Levy, a fantastic young manager with a young team, you have to think, hang on for a minute could history change and all of sudden Spurs become that dominate force in North London? But again, I go back to the revenues and a lot in the Premier League is governed by your revenues as a football club and I just can’t think that there’s going to be this crazy difference right now. Even though Spurs are in a brilliant period of time with what they are doing at the moment and Arsenal are not, I think it’s way too early to say that there’s a shift of power in North London.

Q: Have Spurs begun to rise to the level of Arsenal?

RM: I think it’s about Spurs rising, but Arsenal have definitely fallen. Considering where they are right now it looks very difficult for them to finish in the top four and they’re stagnating. They’ve stood still where Spurs have really gone forward. I think you really have to give credit to the owner Daniel Levy. We all know he is an extremely hard negotiator, he won’t go crazy on players’ salaries. He has sold the club’s best players before for financial reasons, like [Gareth] Bale and [Luka] Modric and through all those situations he’s still managing to put together the football side of the club that’s phenomenal. Their new stadium is going to be incredible. We had a look at it two weeks ago when we were in England and it was magnificent. There’s no question that Spurs are on a fantastic run with this new dynamic football side of things and this young squad that have been all signed up.  They’ve signed up all their good young players where with Arsenal you’re thinking about who’s staying, who’s going to sign a longer contract.

I think the off the field stuff in terms of organization, preparation and execution, Spurs have been fantastic. It’s just the annual revenues that Tottenham Hotspur bring in are still a long way down on some of the other clubs in the Premier League. That’s the challenge for them going forward. You have to figure Spurs will be addressing these revenue issues in the next few years as they move into their new stadium and maybe if the team gets more successful they will close that gap financially as well.

Q: If we are looking at the next five years, which side has the brighter future?

RM: I think in the five-year window Spurs’ future is more positive. I mean in terms of the ownership, Stan Kroenke doesn’t seem that motivated, that involved. Arsenal are a giant of a club, a historical giant of European football and that’s where the frustration has come from the Arsenal fans. They should be challenging for the title. Last year, I thought it was absolutely their year to win, given the other teams that weren’t in good shape and Leicester ended up winning the league title so the frustrations are still there. I think the general feeling is that Arsene Wenger is going to stay at the football club so I just, you can’t see a reason to be extremely positive about them challenging for the Premier League title.

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Whereas Spurs you can. Their net spend over the last few years hasn’t been a lot. They’ve received a lot of money from the players they’ve sold. Financially they are in good shape and they’ve done an amazing job in producing a brilliant young team without spending a huge amount of money. I think when you look at the manager and these young players you have to be more excited about Spurs. Particularly the players that are signed up for long contracts. They are playing so well, their ages are good and there’s been an improvement from last season with Spurs. They’ve got their highest Premier League points tally already in 74 points. That’s real progression and the majority of the team is the same so that shows you what the manager does with his players. He improves them and develops them so they become a stronger team, where with Arsenal you can’t say that. You can’t say that many of the players, if any at all, are improving. There doesn’t seem to be this same underlying progression from the squad.

Q: What do you think happens in this weekend’s North London derby?

RM: I think it’s interesting. I think it’s made more interesting because of Arsenal’s system. The three at the back is very different for Wenger. It’s worked in the three games they’ve played so far. They’ve won all of them when they’ve played this system. We first saw it against Middlesbrough which didn’t look particularly comfortable but I think they’ve done better since. However, I think Spurs are going to show Arsenal whose boss in North London because it is Spurs at the moment. They’re fired up, they’re playing great football and they’re finding ways to win. I thought the Palace away 1-0 victory this week was an indication of an improved determination, a drive, a hunger to win. I think last year I’m not sure if they would have won that game, but manager switches, system switches, player switches and just that drive and going for the game in the second half was very impressive. I just think Spurs are going to confirm with a victory that they are, at the moment, the best team in North London.

“If, if, if” — Wenger won’t quit on catching Spurs

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Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger may be further from Tottenham on the Premier League table as Sunderland is from safety, but he isn’t quitting on St. Totteringham’s Day — not that he’d use that term — until passing Spurs is impossible.

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Tottenham has flailed in a late season superior position before, but it’s almost impossible this time around. If Arsenal wins Sunday, it will be 11 points back with five matches to play. Spurs will have four.

But Wenger is staying wedded to the almost, not the impossible, even in begrudgingly admitted that his North London Derby rivals are the favorites.

From Arsenal.com:

“If, if, if! If, if! It’s true that always in our press conferences we have to respond [about] if the worst happens what do you do? But let’s make sure that the best happens and give absolutely everything to make sure that we finish in a very strong way to our season.”

Wenger said he expects the game to be played in a fashionable, open manner on Sunday at White Hart Lane. Kickoff is at 11:30 a.m. ET.

Mourinho: Van Gaal left good team, but I brought belief

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Jose Mourinho and Manchester United are bringing happiness to the Liberty Stadium on Sunday, or at least more of it.

The United boss says the club’s turnaround is emotionally-based, and that the cupboard certainly wasn’t bare when he took over the Red Devils last summer.

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United finished fifth in the Premier League last season, tied for fourth with Man City and 15 points back of Arsenal. Mourinho’s men sit in the same spot this year, but are in the semifinals of the Europa League, have won the League Cup, and have the door open to the Top Four.

So what’s different? Here’s the boss, from the BBC:

“I think Mr. Van Gaal left a good group of boys with very good relations between them.

“[But] I think they missed happiness, they missed trust, belief, this extra bit that brings resilience, brings fight and they have it [now].”

It’s been a bit of a roller coaster with the Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luke Shaw drama, but — like any new manager — Mourinho did have to sort the club. Now we wonder whether he’ll keep it happy or hit a traditional rut by Year Three (assuming he gets there, and United should be very good next season).