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

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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.

Title-minded
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.

VIDEO: Celtic’s 1st minute goal breaches PSG

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Celtic still have hope of advancing to the UEFA Europa League, but have a new feather in its cap regardless of whether they hold their table advantage on Anderlecht.

Moussa Dembele became the first UEFA Champions League player to score against Paris Saint-Germain, when he side-footed a first minute corner kick off PSG backstop Alphonse Aréola.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Champions League scores ]

Neymar would score just eight minutes later to level the score at the Parc des Princes, but Celtic had its moment and PSG is no longer unbreached despite entering the match with 17 goals scored, conceding zero.

2017 CONCACAF Awards shortlist revealed

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The 2017 CONCACAF Awards shortlist is up, and fan voting counts.

Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, and Christian Pulisic are among the nominees for Men’s Player of the Year. Philadelphia Union’s Jamaican backstop, Andre Blake, is also on the list along with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and others.

[ MORE: Big American Soccer Survey results ]

The Female Player of the Year is predictably American-heavy, with Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Ertz, Megan Rapinoe, Sam Mewis, and Tobin Heath competing with a trio of international players.

Tim Howard is the only American up for Male Goalkeeper of the Year, though Blake is again in the running. The female side has American backstops Adrianna Franch, Alyssa Naeher, Ashlyn Harris, Jane Campbell, and Nicole Barnhart.

The full ballot, including Best XI, coaches, referees, and goals, is up for your votes here.

UCL: Chelsea advances vs. 10-man Qarabag (video)

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  • Chelsea into knockout rounds
  • Willian draws two penalties, scores two more
  • Hazard, Fabregas score

Willian scored two goals from the run of play and drew a pair of penalties in Azerbaijan, as Chelsea beat 10-man Qarabag 4-0 on Wednesday.

His second goal was a fantastic thump from atop the arc, and further iced the result in the 85th minute.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Qarabag hung tough for the first 20 minutes, but saw its odds of getting a point take a hit with a penalty and red card.

Rashad Sadygov made contact with Willian inside the 18, and Portuguese referee Manuel de Sousa awarded a penalty. That was understandable, but surprisingly he produced his red card to send Qarabag down a man.

Eden Hazard converted his low penalty, wrong footing keeper Ibrahim Sehic, and Chelsea took a 1-0 lead in the 21st minute.

Willian would score a goal of his own in the 36th, part of a terrific team goal with Hazard and Pedro.

The Blues were largely content to let Qarabag have the ball early in the second half, but resumed control around the hour mark and Sehic made an outstanding stop on Hazard before substitute Alvaro Morata dragged a shot wide of the far post.

Willian drew a second penalty in the 71st minute, as Maksim Medvedev tugged on the Brazilian’s jersey on a dribble into the 18. Yellow card for this foul.

Cesc Fabregas scored but two Chelsea players infringed on the 18 thanks to the shooter’s stuttering — and stopping — PK. He finished the second as well as the first. 3-0.

Willian added the fourth with a vicious strike five minutes from the end of scheduled play.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

World Cup-bound Saudi Arabia fires coach Edgardo Bauza

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) World Cup-bound Saudi Arabia has fired coach Edgardo Bauza nine days before the draw.

The Saudi Arabia Football Federation announced the Argentine coach’s exit after only five friendlies in charge. The team lost to Portugal and Bulgaria this month.

[ MORE: Big American Soccer Survey results ]

Bauza has been fired twice this year by teams in the World Cup lineup. He lost the Argentina job in April, after eight months in charge, when the two-time World Cup champions risked missing out on qualification.

In September, Bauza was appointed by Saudi Arabia to replace Bert van Marwijk, who was fired despite leading the team to its first World Cup since 2006.

Saudi Arabia joins Australia without a coach for the World Cup draw in Moscow on Dec. 1.