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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.

Report: Steven Taylor to join Timbers, give PDX another nasty CB

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - MARCH 02:  Steven Taylor of Newcastle United during the warm up prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Newcastle United at the Britannia Stadium on March 2, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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Nat Borchers’ achilles injury was a huge blow for Portland, but the Timbers are about to make up for it (perhaps and then some).

Longtime Newcastle United defender Steven Taylor is set to join ex-Premier League center back Liam Ridgwell in the Portland back line, according to Sky Sources.

[ MORE: Immobile finds new team ]

Taylor, 30, has made 265 appearances for Newcastle but did not have a place under new coach Rafa Benitez.

Any concerns about how he’ll fare in Major League Soccer have nothing to do with skill or intelligence, rather his injury history; Taylor has dealt with achilles, knee and head injuries in several of his 13 seasons with the Magpies.

It’s a huge pickup for Portland, though the Timbers need a lot of help to repeat the form that got them to the 2015 MLS Cup; Portland is 7th in the West and winless on the road.

Shy of injuries, Taylor’s skill set will instantly translate to MLS. Look for him to pitch in offensively as well, and be an instant leader. Most notably, Taylor turned down interest from around the PL when Newcastle was relegated in 2009, opting to stay alongside Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez in instantly returning NUFC to the top flight.

Immobile on the move again, switching to Lazio

MONTPELLIER, FRANCE - JUNE 29:  Ciro Immobile of Italy speaks with the media during a press conference at Casa Azzurri on June 29, 2016 in Montpellier, France.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
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The Ciro Immobile odyssey continues, though this move is within Serie A.

Since debuting for Juventus in 2009, Immobile has played for eight teams. He joins a ninth, Lazio, this season, after playing for Torino on loan from Sevilla last season.

[ MORE: Conte questions PL spending ]

Immobile, 26, earned a move away from Juve after scoring 28 goals for Serie B side Pescara in 2012.

He’s also played for Borussia Dortmund, Genoa, Siena, and Grossetto, and has 15 caps with one goal for the Italian national team.

Immobile appeared as a sub in two matches at EURO 2016, while Lazio finished eighth in Serie A last season.

Mascherano to stay at Barcelona through 2018-19 season

Javier Mascherano, FC Barcelona
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Argentina international Javier Mascherano has agreed to extend his contract with the Spanish champions until June 2019.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Club executive Albert Soler says “we have reached an agreement to improve (Mascherano’s) contract” without specifying the financial details.

The 32-year-old Mascherano plays as a central defender for Barcelona alongside fellow first-choice centerback Gerard Pique.

[ MORE: Zlatan reveals MLS offer ]

Since his arrival in 2010 from Liverpool, he has played in 282 games for Barcelona and helped it win 16 titles, including two Champions League crowns.

Also on Wednesday, Barcelona presented new midfielder Andre Gomes.

Transfer Rumors: Koulibaly to Chelsea, Stones to Man City, Arsenal chase CB

MILAN, ITALY - APRIL 16:  Mauro Icardi (L) of FC Internazionale Milano controls the ball against Kalidou Koulibaly of SSC Napoli during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale Milano and SSC Napoli at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on April 16, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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It has been reported by Sky Italy that Chelsea have made a $50 million bid for Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly.

The towering Senegalese defender has been liked with both Chelsea and Everton and Koulibaly’s agent has recently said that his client will leave the Serie A side this summer.

[ MORE: Guardiola bans pizza

Koulibaly, 25, is refusing to sign a new deal with Napoli and with John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill as Chelsea’s three experienced options at center back — Kurt Zouma is still recovering from a serious knee injury and Matt Miazga is still developing at Stamford Bridge — new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte appears to favor strengthening his central defensive options.

Leaking goals was a big problem for the Blues last season as their title defense started woefully and they ended up finishing 10th in the Premier League table. Conte will shore things up and this reported bid for Koulibaly suggests he is ready to splash some more cash, despite questioning the sustainability of big money transfers less than 24 hours ago.


Manchester City is reportedly closing in on deals for four different players as Pep Guardiola looks to bring in plenty of new faces ahead of his first season in charge.

According to the BBC, Everton and City are discussing the transfer of John Stones for $65 million. The 22-year-old center back has long been linked with City and the England international has reportedly told Everton he wants to leave Goodison Park. Stones struggled for most of last season after breaking through in the previous two PL campaigns but he believes his fluid passing from the back game will flourish in Guardiola’s system.

[ MORE: Zlatan reveals MLS offer ]

Three attacking players are also linked with City as Leroy Sane returned to training with Schalke on Wednesday. The 20-year-old attacker is valued at over $52 million by Schalke and Sky Sports is reporting that the two clubs are in talks about the transfer fee.

Sky also says that City are close to tying up two deals for South American teenage forwards Gabriel Jesus and Marlos Moreno. Atletico Nacional in Colombia want around $11 million for Moreno, while Palmeiras value Jesus at over $26 million. The latter will be playing for Brazil at Rio 2016 Olympics and there is a slight snag with both of these deals as obtaining work permits could be an issue.


Arsene Wenger has made his transfer target clear: “We have to look for an option to get a bit more experience.”

He was, of course, talking about an experienced center back.

The Gunners could be without Laurent Koscielny for the start of the season as he continues to recover from a busy summer with the French national team, while Per Mertesacker has been ruled out with a long-term knee injury leaving Wenger with only Gabriel, Rob Holding and Calum Chambers (maybe even Nacho Monreal shifting in from left back) to choose from.

It will be interesting to see who Arsenal go for in their hunt for some cover. Maybe Martin Demichelis who is a free agent?