Brazil Soccer WCup Netherlands Argentina

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

2 Comments

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.

Five things Jose Mourinho must do at Manchester United

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29:  Jose Mourinho manager of Chelsea looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane on November 29, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jose Mourinho will reportedly take charge of Manchester United before the end of this week.

[ MORE: Mourinho to hold United talks

The Portuguese coach, 53, has been out of a job since he left Chelsea last December but now the job he’s been muttering about and mentioning for over a decade has arrived.

“The Special One” seems to be the chosen one, at least when it comes to United’s hierarchy who are ready to hand him the keys with Louis Van Gaal out as boss on Monday.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI? ]

Mourinho has plenty of work to do to first restore United to the top of the PL and then to Europe.

Below is a quick checklist of what Mourinho must sort out first when he likely arrives at Old Trafford in the coming days.

He has a huge job on his hands but if anybody can do it, it’s Mourinho.


1 – Get a new, more powerful spine of the team

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 12: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Paris Saint-Germain beats Eliaquim Mangala (20) and Joe Hart of Manchester City to score, but his goal is disallowed during the UEFA Champions League quarter final second leg match between Manchester City FC and Paris Saint-Germain at the Etihad Stadium on April 12, 2016 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

A lot has been said about the laborious rate of play under LVG the best two seasons but not much has been said about why it’s been like that. Of course, pace is a huge factor in that but as is winning the ball back in key areas and United haven’t done that enough in midfield and defense. Getting in two destructive players in central midfield and central defense is key for this team. With Nemanja Matic linked to United, that would work in midfield. John Stones and Raphael Varane in central defense would also work and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top, boom, there’s your new spine of the team. It’s more powerful and able to dominate teams.

2 – Convince David De Gea to stay

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 02: David De Gea of Manchester United celebrates the opening goal scored by Juan Mata (not pictured) during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Watford at Old Trafford on March 2, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

This is a big one and has this storyline has somehow got lost in the shuffle a little in the past few months. Let’s not forget that De Gea missed United’s opening games of the season after he lost focus with his potential move to Real Madrid up in the air. He accepted it when it didn’t happen after an eleventh hour breakdown and the Spanish international was once again named the PL’s best goalkeeper. De Gea, 25, is key to this United team and to that strong spine we’re talking about. Without UEFA Champions League action to offer next season, Mourinho must convince him to stay at United as Real lurk in the background ready to activate his reported release clause.

3 – Play Wayne Rooney as a No. 10

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 02: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Swansea City at Old Trafford on January 2, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

I’ve seen enough of Rooney in midfield in recent weeks to believe this is where his future lies. United’s captain even seems to believe it now too. However, he should play in a slightly more attacking role than he has been. That is where he’s at his best. We’ve seen him struggle with some of the easier passes and given the ball away in key possessions as he takes too many risks on the ball as a holding or deeper central midfielder. Play him just in front of two defensive midfielders and let him roam free behind a target man like Zlatan or Marcus Rashford.

4 – Keep faith in the youngsters

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 20: Daniel Rashford of Manchester United in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Okay, so Jose has been terrible at doing this in the past. Wherever he has gone he’s had a short-term approach, a “win now, worry later” mentality which has left some of the teams in ruins after his departure. Yet, at United it can be argued that many of the youngsters giving their debuts this season by Van Gaal were the bright spots. Rashford is a special talent and Jesse Lingard is flourishing, while Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson showed promise. Then you have Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Memphis. The latter could get a new lease of life under Mourinho and, all of a sudden, Mourinho could have a very young team. That said, he’ll likely go out and bring in some experience form his days at Real Madrid or Chelsea but he should not neglect this opportunity to thrust youngsters into the limelight like he has done so readily in the past.

5 – Prioritize the Premier League

Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC
Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC

He’s won plenty of FA Cups and League Cups with Chelsea in the past but it is time for Mourinho to fully focus on one thing when he arrives at United: finishing in the top four. United simply have to be in the UCL in 2017-18 and their failure to qualify for that tournament this season was the main reason LVG is out. Like Liverpool showed a few years ago and Leicester City showed us this season, when you only have one competition to focus on, then anything is possible. Play the kids in all of the Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup games and keep your star players hungry to succeed in the Premier League.

Ahead of Copa America, what is USMNT’s best XI?

FBL-CONCACAF-GOLD CUP-USA-PAN
Getty Images
5 Comments

Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team has a big few weeks ahead of them.

[ MORE: What’s next for USMNT? ]

The USMNT have two more friendlies — Ecuador on Wednesday, then Bolivia on Saturday — before they face Colombia in the 2016 Copa America Centenario opener in Santa Clara, Calif. on June 3.

Klinsmann has already stated the USA’s goal is to reach the semifinals of the 16-team tournament as CONCACAF and CONMEBOL’s finest square off. Getting out of a tricky Group A will be a big achievement for the U.S. as Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay stand in their way.

[ MORE: Mourinho to hold United talks ]

With the Major League Soccer contingent of players just joining up with the squad, plus others leaving after taking part in the friendly win in Puerto Rico last Sunday, Klinsmann now has the majority of his final 23-man roster with him and available for selection.

Who should start against Colombia in 10 days time? Let’s take a look at the best XI Klinsmann can pick.


USMNT’s best XI

—– Guzan —–

— Yedlin — Cameron — Birnbaum — Johnson —

— Bradley — Jones —

— Bedoya — Dempsey — Zardes —

—– Wood —–

Thoughts

We know that Klinsmann has named Brad Guzan as his starter for the Copa America and given that he’s played more regularly than MLS-bound Tim Howard over the past six months, that’s understandable. Do I still think Howard is overall a better goalkeeper than Guzan? Yes.

The back four, for me, picks itself. DeAndre Yedlin has shown his development, especially defensively, as a solid right back at Sunderland this season. That loan move did him the world of good. Geoff Cameron is the clear leader in central defense (he has been struggling with a hamstring injury but should be good to go next Friday) and you have to select a center back who can compliment him best. I believe Steve Birnbaum is that man even though John Brooks may be the better overall player. Fabian Johnson should play at left back simply because the U.S. doesn’t have many options in that area. The Borussia Monchengladbach winger is incredibly useful going forward but needs must.

Central midfield should be locked down by Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, although Kyle Beckerman or Darlington Nagbe do have a chance of starting in that area to give Bradley the chance to play as the central attacking midfielder.

In an attacking midfield three I’ve gone for Alejandro Bedoya, Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes as I think they have the perfect mixture of pace, trickery and industry and they will support the man who has risen to stardom: Bobby Wood.

The hopes of Klinsmann’s team rest on the shoulders of Hamburg’s Hawaiian striker but whispers out of training camp suggest Wood is up to the challenge of leading the line after Jozy Altidore went down with an injury. Also, watch out for Christian Pulisic who will likely be used off the bench to support Wood. The 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund sensation can slot into any of the attacking midfield positions and is a real wildcard for Klinsmann to throw in when necessary.

Reports: Rafael Benitez to remain in charge at Newcastle United

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Rafael Benitez, manager of Newcastle United gives the thumbs up during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur at St James' Park on May 15, 2016 in Newcastle, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Getty Images
1 Comment

Multiple reports in the UK claim that Rafael Benitez has agreed to stay in charge at Newcastle United.

Benitez, 53, took charge of the Magpies in March but camp up just short of keeping them in the Premier League in 2015-16 as they were relegated to the English Championship.

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United ]     

However, a report in The Guardian says he has agree to stay on and has a three-year deal at the club and the Daily Telegraph echoes those sentiments, adding that Benitez will be given full control of the transfer committee and decide who comes in and out of the club.

The reports suggest that Moussa Sissoko, Georginio Wijnaldum, Daryl Janmaat and Andros Townsend will all be sold this summer to help raise around $60 million which will fuel a spending spree to push them back to the top-flight at the first-time of asking.

[ MORE: Arsenal sign $45 million Xhaka ]

Benitez took charge of Newcastle’s final 10 games of the season and lost just three times, getting the fans on his side and the season ended with a 5-1 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur even though they’d already been relegated. Newcastle’s fans believe Benitez is the right man to lead them and gave him an outpouring of messages asking him to so.

It was believed Benitez was not going to stay if they were relegated but such has been the warmth of the fans and the lack of other options in the PL, Benitez seems to have made a massive U-turn after assurances were reportedly made to him by owner Mike Ashley about transfer budgets, a new scouting system and many other facets of the club.

The Spanish coach excelled in the final weeks of the season with Newcastle winning three of their final six games and going unbeaten in that stretch but it wasn’t enough to keep their sinking ship afloat after Steve McClaren‘s disastrous spell in charge of the club was cut short after just eight months in charge.

Benitez simple had too little time to save Newcastle but he did appear to get the best out of the players at his disposal in the short time he was in charge. With his initial contract said to have a break clause he could activate should the Magpies get relegated, the former Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Napoli and Real Madrid manager has been spending some time away to think about his future.

It seems like he has decided to stay and lead Newcastle’s charge back to the Premier League. If that notion comes to fruition it will be music to the ears of fans of the Magpies.

Arsenal complete $45 million signing of Granit Xhaka

TURIN, ITALY - OCTOBER 21:  Granit Xhaka captain of VfL Borussia Monchengladbach wearing a 'No To Racism' arm band during the UEFA Champions League group stage match between Juventus and VfL Borussia Moenchengladbach at Juventus Arena on October 21, 2015 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arsenal has completed the third biggest transfer in their history as Granit Xhaka has joined from Borussia Monchengladbach for a fee believed to be around $45 million.

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United ]    

Xhaka, 23, is a Swiss international midfielder and Arsene Wenger has been tracking the powerful box-to-box player for many years.

He will officially be an Arsenal player from July 1 and has signed a long-term deal at the club.

[ MORE: PL money table 2015-16

Speaking to the club website, Xhaka is delighted to have arrived at the Emirates Stadium and explained to Arsenal’s fans a little of what he’s about.

“I am very happy to be here. For me it is a dream come true,” Xhaka said. “I am a player who likes to play football and I am an aggressive player, maybe a leader. I’m only 23 but I was in Germany and captain of a good team.”

Wenger also revealed the extend of Arsenal’s scouting of the former Basel midfielder.

“Granit Xhaka is an exciting young player, already with good Champions League and Bundesliga experience,” Wenger said. “We have been watching him for a long time now and he is a player who will add quality to our squad. We wish Granit a good Euro 2016 with Switzerland and look forward to welcoming him to Arsenal ahead of next season.”

Xhaka will slot straight into Arsenal’s central midfield area which now has considerable competition.

With Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny due to be his main competitor for playing time, the fact that Arsenal has shelled out nearly $50  million to land Xhaka tells you that he will likely be a starter. Then, the likes of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla will all have to fight to get a spot alongside him in central midfield.

After Arsenal finished second in the 2015-16 PL table, something which disappointing fans with Leicester City winning the title by 10 points, Wenger has started his business early and has sealed the deal for Xhaka before he heads to the 2016 European Championships in France as a key member of Switzerland’s team.

Gunners fans will be licking their lips as Wenger has been backed in the transfer market and has added power and substance to central midfield. That’s something they’ve been crying out for now for many years.

Is Xhaka the missing piece in the jigsaw as Arsenal search for their first PL trophy in 13 years? Perhaps another striker and center back will persuade many that they will be the favorites to win the PL in 2016-17 but Xhaka’s arrival is a huge sign of their intent to kick on next season.