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Preview, Germany vs. Argentina: Messi to define, be defined by World Cup final


One explanation that’s emerged in the wake of LeBron James’ return to the Cavaliers focuses on his former Heat teammates. Not that Cleveland offers much more, right now, but after Miami fell flat against San Antonio in last month’s NBA Finals, the question that defined James’ offseason became clear: If I have a choice between two flawed teams, why not pick the one closer to home?

Lionel Messi doesn’t get those choices, and the extent to which Argentina is flawed depends on your point of reference, but compare his Albiceleste to Germany, and the James comparison looks even more apt. On Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, Messi — the best player in his sport — will try to raise the level of his supporting cast to that of Germany – the deepest, most talented team at the 2014 World Cup.

Win, and Messi not only produces his country’s third world title, but he also cements a legend that will justify a place beside Pelé and Diego Maradona. Having already dispelled the notion that he can’t perform in World Cups, the four-time world player of the year can start to address the more justifiable claim: That he’s yet to earn a place along side history’s big two. Winning a world title on Brazilian soil may end the discussion.

source: Getty ImagesA Germany win moves the nation within one of Brazil’s all-time record. With an Argentina victory, the country becomes the fourth to win at least three world titles:

Nation Titles
Brazil 5
Italy 4
Germany 3
Argentina 2
Uruguay 2
France 1
England 1
Spain 1

Lose, and Messi will be left in the same position as James: Reminded of an individual’s limits in a team sport. For the mastery he shows with every touch, the vision he showed while setting up Ángel Di María’s game-winning goal against Switzerland (as well as his near-goal against Belgium), Messi has been contained in the knockout rounds. Amid rumors of fatigue, his movement has waned. After scoring four goals in group stage, Messi saw three teams willing to sit behind the ball limit his influence, taking the chance his teammates could beat them.

The Messi conundrum

But how likely is Germany, with its wealth of attacking talent, to employ similar approach? At first blush, it seems ‘not very’, but German champions Bayern Munich, for all the skill and danger they offered going forward, were content to wait for their opportunities against Messi’s Barcelona two years ago. The route saw the German titans into the Champions League final, providing a performance Germany head coach Joachim Löw is sure to consider in the buildup to Sunday’s final. Whereas the frailties in that Barça defense left the Spanish giants weak in transition, a German team build on Bayern talent could find similar success against Argentina.

It’s all part of the Messi conundrum. For opponents, the dilemma’s about how much you alter your approach. For Messi’s team, the question is whether to commit more players forward, hoping to capitalize on opponents’ conservative approach. In doing so, however, poor defenders get less help in transition, leaving you apt to be exploited by your own pursuit.

To this point, Argentina’s been unwilling to do take up that chase. In the early rounds, it didn’t matter. No matter how defensive opponents played, they weren’t able to contain Messi for 90 minutes. In the second round, Switzerland’s late-match fatigue allowed the game to open up, while the quarterfinals saw an early goal allow the Albiceleste to keep the Belgians at arms length. Only in the semifinals, when Argentina was unwilling to take chances against the Netherlands, did Alejandro Sabella’s approach nearly cost them. Penalty kicks saw them through.

Path to the final: Argentina
source: APArgentina needed penalty kicks to reach the final. Before facing the Netherlands, however, it was smooth sailing for the Albiceleste:

Round Opponent Result
Group F Bosnia-Herzegovina W, 2-1
Group F Iran W, 1-0
Group F Nigeria W, 3-2
Round of 16 Switzerland W, 1-0 (aet)
Quarterfinals Belgium W, 1-0
Semifinals Netherlands D, 0-0 (pk: 4-2)

It’s a reminder of the limits of Messi’s control. You don’t have to go too far to hear somebody note that Pelé or Maradona would take over games, but there were plenty of others matches that were beyond those legends’ reach. Not every game is there for a superstar’s taking, and between the talent around him, the tactics, and the power at Germany’s disposal, there may be relatively little Messi can control. If Germany’s going to make it all about him, another Argentine will have to step up.

The person most likely to do that is Gonzalo Higuaín, who has averaged more than 20 goals per season over the last six years in Europe. Ezequiel Lavezzi, a skilled attacker capable of taking advantage of left back Benedickt Howedes or the space behind right back Philipp Lahm, gives Argentina another hope, while Manchester City star Sergio Agüero and Inter Milan attacker Rodrigo Palacio will allow Sabella to change his team’s look. As much as any team in the tournament, Argentina has the attacking depth to exploit an occasionally generous German defense.

A test of German faith

That threat gives Löw enough reason to stay the course. Rather than worry too much about Messi, employing a plan that would force his team to change approach, the Germans can rely on their best defense: Possession. Although Argentina have maintained 58.6 percent of the ball during the tournament, Germany’s had 59.4 percent, doing so against better competition. When you have a midfield of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira, and Toni Kroos, with Mesut Özil, Thömas Müller, and Lahm providing support, the best plan may be whatever keeps the ball at their feet.

Path to the final: Germany
source: AP
Scares against Ghana and Algeria have not stopped Germany from posting the most impressive record in the tournament, winning five of six games with a +13 goal difference:

Round Opponent Result
Group G Portugal W, 4-0
Group G Ghana D, 2-2
Group G United States W, 1-0
Round of 16 Algeria W, 2-1 (aet)
Quarterfinals France W, 1-0
Semifinals Brazil W, 7-1

If that happens, Müller is likely to build on his second straight five-goal World Cup. Miroslav Klose could add to his tournament record for career goals (16). Kroos can be as influential on Sunday as he was against Brazil, while Özil’s influence may finally translate to the scoresheet.

All of which brings us back to the Messi conundrum. If Löw maintains faith in his team’s approach, relies on his talents to replicate performances we saw against France and Brazil, Germany could be the great team so many have longed for throughout this tournament. They may also open themselves up to Messi’s defining performance.

And if they do adjust for Messi, playing more compact through the middle, aggressively marking him whenever they’re without the ball? They could improve on the Netherlands’ performance, using that talented midfield to create the counterattacks the Oranje could never launch. But they also give Higuaín, Lavezzi, and Agüero more time to take advantage of that approach.

No matter how you look at it, Messi’s likely to play a decisive role. Whether plays well. Whether his teammates step up. Whether Germany adjusts. When a player’s this great, everything’s defined by his threat.

And come Sunday night, regardless of how he plays, Messi will either ascend to the next level of soccer stardom or leave his critics one last area of recourse. Unlike other great athletes, he has no choice but to be defined by this challenge.

MLS Cup Playoffs: NY Red Bulls 1-0 (1-2 agg.) Columbus Crew SC

Tony Tchani, Michael Parkhurst

The game in 100 words (or less): Columbus Crew SC are headed to their second MLS Cup in club history (champions – 2008) after defeating the New York Red Bulls, 2-0 on aggregate, in the Western Conference finals (0-0 draw in an extremely chippy second leg on Sunday). Justin Meram and Kei Kamara scored the two-leg tie’s only goals — eight seconds and 85 minutes into the first leg, respectively — and Crew SC confidently managed the second leg by defending with numbers and wisely picking their spots to break out on the counter. RBNY held nearly 60 percent of possession in the second leg, but could muster just six shots on target over the 90 minutes. Crew SC will host the Portland Timbers in MLS Cup 2015 next Sunday (4 p.m. ET) at MAPFRE Stadium.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS weekend ]

Three moments that mattered

38′ — Robles at full stretch to deny Kamara — What’s better: the first touch, second touch, turn and shot by Kei Kamara; or, the sprawled-out save by Luis Robles to swat away a ball clearly headed for the bottom corner? Quality on quality.

90+3′ — Abang heads home to make it nervy late — Anatole Abange rose above the crowd and headed home a recycled ball inside the penalty area after a Sal Zizzo cross was headed high into the air late into stoppage time.

90+5′ — Madness in the penalty area, RBNY hit the post — It was absolute scenes inside the Crew SC penalty area. Ball after ball pumped into the box, headed high into the air and briefly cleared. The final chance of the game fell to Bradley Wright-Phillips, who headed the ball toward the far post with Steve Clark rushing out quickly, only to see his slow dribbler bounce off the front side of the post and back into the field of play.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Wil Trapp

Goalscorers: Abang (90+3′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: FC Dallas 2-2 (3-5 agg.) Portland Timbers

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers FC
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The game in 100 words (or less): The Portland Timbers are headed to their first MLS Cup in club history after defeating FC Dallas, 5-3 on aggregate, in the Western Conference finals (2-2 draw in the second leg). Fanendo Adi scored in Sunday’s second leg, giving Caleb Porter’s side a 4-1 aggregate lead before Ryan Hollingshead and Blas Perez scored inside the last 25 minutes to give Oscar Pareja’s bunch a late lifeline, but Lucas Melano’s spectacular tap-in sealed the Timbers’ trip to MLS Cup. The third seed heading into the playoffs, Portland bounced Sporting Kansas City in an epic penalty shootout in the knockout round and outlasted the Vancouver Whitecaps in the conference semifinals before knocking off the West’s top seed over two legs to advance to MLS Cup 2015. No matter who advances from the East finals later on Sunday, Portland will play away in MLS Cup, to either the New York Red Bulls or Columbus Crew SC.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS weekend ]

Three Four moments that mattered

54′ — Adi fires past Gonzalez to make if 4-1 — Oscar Pareja elected to go with Walker Zimmerman at center back on Sunday, dropping regular starter Zach Loyd to the bench. On the game’s opening goal, it was Zimmerman who wound up on the ground as Adi received the ball, turned and fired a massive away goal past Jesse Gonzalez.

68′ — Diaz’s magical ball curled home by Hollingshead — Mauro Diaz is a wonderful magician capable of playing the kill through ball from anywhere on the field — this we’ve known for quite some time. His chipped through ball to set up Hollingshead’s goal was extraordinarily brilliant, even for him.

73′ — Perez heads home the free kick to pull within one — Would you be surprised to hear that it was Diaz who set up FCD’s second goal? His free kick was Perez-finding missile and found the head of the Panamanian striker at the top of the six-yard box, where 34-year-old headed home with ease.

90+5′ — Melano rounds Gonzalez, seals MLS Cup berth — Poor Jesse Gonzalez. Absolutely schooled and posterized by Lucas Melano. What a way to sew up a place in the championship final.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Mauro Diaz

Goalscorers: Adi (54′), Hollingshead (68′), Perez (73′), Melano (90+5′)

La Liga & Serie A: Real Madrid bounce back; Juventus on the charge

Gareth Bale, Real Madrid CF
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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

Eibar 0-2 Real Madrid

Real Madrid bounced back from back-to-back La Liga defeats with a 2-0 victory away to Eibar on Sunday. Gareth Bale (below video) and Cristiano Ronaldo (penalty kick) provided the goals to keep Rafa Benitez‘s bunch (27 points) third in the league, two points behind Atletico Madrid and six behind leaders Barcelona.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Getafe 2-0 Villarreal
Rayo Vallecano 0-3 Athletic Bilbao
Sevilla 1-0 Valencia

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup ]

Roma 0-2 Atalanta

Losing at home to sides currently in a relegation battle — rarely a good idea, especially if you fancy yourselves title challengers, but that didn’t stop Roma from doing just that on Sunday. Alejandro Gomez and German Denis scored the goals to knock off a 10-man Roma side (Maicon – 81st minute) and keep Rudi Garcia’s bunch (27 points) from gaining ground on any of the three teams currently ahead of them — Inter Milan, Napoli and Fiorentina — all of whom play on Monday.

AC Milan 4-1 Sampdoria

M’Baye Niang scored twice, while Giacomo Bonaventura and Luiz Adriano (below video) added single tallies for AC Milan (23 points) to keep pace with the top-five pack in Serie A. After 14 rounds of games, the Rossoneri sit sixth, a point outside fifth (UEFA Europa League) and five points out of third (UEFA Champions League).

Palermo 0-3 Juventus

Don’t look now, but here come Juventus. Sunday’s 3-0 triumph over Palermo makes it four straight wins in the league for Massimiliano Allegri’s side — a run that pushes them all the way up to fifth in the league (24 points), just six points off the pace of leaders Inter, who play on Monday. Mario Mandzukic (below video), Stefano Sturaro and Simone Zaza scored the goals for the world’s most frightening fifth-place team.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Torino 2-0 Bologna
Chievo 2-3 Udinese
Frosinone 3-2 Hellas Verona
Genoa 1-2 Carpi
Empoli 1-0 Lazio

Monday’s Serie A schedule

Sassuolo vs. Fiorentina (1 p.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Inter Milan (3 p.m. ET)

Arsenal’s injury crisis — add Sanchez, Cazorla, Koscielny to the list

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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From title challengers to just hoping to hold on to a top-four place while Arsene Wenger is forced to play reserves and academy players because half of his star players are currently out injured — the annual story of Arsenal.

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Oct. 27, when Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both went down with injuries in the same game, marked the unofficial start of Arsenal’s 2015-16 injury crisis, but things didn’t really get going full bore until the last seven days, when five more players — four of them full-time starters — picked up injuries that will keep them out of action for anywhere between three weeks and three months.

Added to the list last weekend: Francis Coquelin (knee – three months minimum), Mikel Arteta (calf – three weeks)

Added to the list on Sunday: Alexis Sanchez (hamstring – MORE DETAILS), Santi Cazorla (knee), Laurent Koscielny (hip)

Following Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Norwich City, Wenger said Koscielny “could not walk” due to the hip spasm that forced him out of the game after just 11 minutes. He also divulged that Cazorla, who could not be subbed off because Wenger had already used all three subs late on, played the second half “on one leg.” Sanchez came into Sunday injured after picking up a hamstring injury in Arsenal’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Sunday’s PL roundup — Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs all draw ]

Arsenal fans were up in arms during the summer transfer window — let’s be honest, the following is true of every transfer window the last five years — crying out, “We must buy, we must buy.” Have a look at Arsenal’s complete injury list at the moment, and try to say, “They didn’t need to buy in the summer.”

In chronological order: Danny Welbeck (knee – early 2016 return), Tomas Rosicky (knee – Christmas time return), Jack Wilshere (leg – Christmas time return), Theo Walcott (calf – December return), Mikel Arteta (calf – three weeks), Francis Coquelin (knee – three months minimum), Laurent Koscielny (hip – to be assessed), Alexis Sanchez (hamstring – to be assessed), Santi Cazorla (knee – to be assessed)