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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.

VIDEO: Arsene Wenger apologizes for being sent off

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While his team was fighting for second position in the Premier League table, Arsene Wenger was watching from the depths of the Emirates.

Incensed at the (correct) decision to award Burnley a penalty two minutes into stoppage time after Arsenal had controlled much of the game, Wenger lashed out at fourth official Anthony Taylor, causing referee Jon Moss to send Wenger off the pitch.

The Frenchman was forced to watch Alexis Sanchez score a penalty of his own, giving Arsenal a stunning 2-1 win over the Clarets. After the match, Wenger was pleased with the victory, but apologized for his actions, which included shoving Taylor slightly on three separate occasions.

“I saw it [the winning penalty] on television, I at least saw what happened,” Wenger said. “I didn’t see a penalty from outside, but I should have kept my control and I apologize for that. [I should have] not said a word. I should have shut up.”

It’s possible that Wenger sees punishment from the FA for his actions, as it isn’t the first time he’s clashed with referees this season.

The Frenchman was complimentary of Burnley’s defense, with Arsenal controlling much of the game but failing to score more than one goal through regulation.

“My team was well organized, which makes the game simple but efficient. It’s kind of frustrating games that you get here, and you have to deal with it tactically, and we did it well. We won over there in the last second with a little bit of a dodgy goal, and we won today again just in the last second again, so they’re a very strong team.”

Wenger was non-committal when asked about Granit Xhaka‘s dismissal, saying it was on the other side of the field so he did not get a good look at the decision.

Xhaka’s latest red makes him the most sent-off player in Europe

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Granit Xhaka (R) of Arsenal protests to referee Jonathan Moss after shown a red card during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Granit Xhaka was a marked man before he came to England. With four dismissals over the last two club seasons, Arsenal fans were aware they were bringing in a talented passer and midfield destroyer, but also a man who had trouble staying on the pitch.

That has manifested itself in the Premier League, and has been maybe even exacerbated.

With his second straight red card of the season, Xhaka’s disciplinary issues are a hindrance to the Gunners and leaves Arsene Wenger with a big decision to make – to continue Xhaka’s selection in the matchday squad when he returns from suspension, or leave him on the sidelines as to not risk again falling down to 10 men.

Over the last 2-1/2 calendar years dating back to the start of the 2014/15 Bundesliga season when he was with Borussia Monchengladbach, Xhaka has been sent off six times in league play, once in the Europa League, and another for his international team during 2018 World Cup qualifying this past summer. The league record alone is more than any other player in the top 5 European leagues.

While obviously the sheer numbers are a major issue, the true problem is in the eye test. Xhaka isn’t learning from his mistakes. No, his dismissal against Burnley wasn’t the most malicious of challenges, but it was a textbook straight red card. The Swiss international passed the ball straight to Steven Defour, and long after the Burnley midfielder unloaded the ball to a teammate, Xhaka went lunging in with both feet showing studs, forcing referee Jon Moss to show him the showers after a quick conference with the assistant referee who was in perfect position to make the call.

If the 24-year-old wishes to find his way back to the field in Arsenal colors, he needs to start learning from his actions, or he will end up on the bench, either through suspension or selection. It nearly cost Arsenal a chance at second place against Burnley, with the Clarets energized by their man advantage. He has four domestic matches to think about what he’s done.

Chelsea 2-0 Hull City: Costa return sends Chelsea eight points clear

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Diego Costa (R) of Chelsea celebrates scoring the opening goal with his team mates during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City at Stamford Bridge on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Chelsea didn’t miss a beat with Diego Costa out, but they sure are glad to have him back.

The Spaniard bagged a goal in lengthy first-half stoppage time and Chelsea eased its way to all three points to take advantage of a host of slip-ups near the top of the table to work an eight-point gap at the summit. A late goal from Gary Cahill secured the points as the Blues were on their way.

The Blues had the opening chance just 11 seconds into the game as they boomed a long ball forward, one that Diego Costa chested down and volleyed just inches wide left.

Past the 12 minute mark, there was a lengthy injury delay after Ryan Mason and Gary Cahill had a very nasty clash of heads. Cahill came out relatively unscathed and was able to stay on but Mason was down for several minutes, requiring full medical attention as he received oxygen and was carefully placed on a backboard before being stretchered off.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The game seemed to fall asleep after the delay, with Mason replaced by David Meyler. Hull had a spell of possession, including a corner, before Chelsea got back on the ball. The Blues nearly got a break when a shot from Marcos Alonso took a massive deflection and nearly looped into the top corner, but Eldin Jakupovic was there to tip it behind.

That moment began a huge spell of pressure for the Blues. David Luiz rose high to meet a Victor Moses cross but couldn’t get the contact, and then Pedro went to ground for a penalty shout but was denied. Hull’s defensive shape was fantastic in the first half, and while Chelsea held the bulk of possession, they had little to show for it in front of net. In significant first half added time they came close again, with Alonso on the left wing cut one across the face of goal, but it was just out of reach for a sliding N'Golo Kante and into Jakupovic’s arms.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Before the break, Chelsea would break through. Victor Moses cut a ball across the penalty area that somehow made it all the way to Diego Costa without a touch, and the Brazilian put himself back in the spotlight with a powerful finish.

The second half was a spirited one, but didn’t produce much in front of net. The television commentators called the game “plucky” which accurately described the action. After 70 minutes, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte brought off Eden Hazard for Cesc Fabregas. Hull City had a healthy amount of attacking intent, but couldn’t get by the Chelsea back three.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It wasn’t enough for the Tigers, as Chelsea put the game away with 10 minutes to go. Substitute Cesc Fabregas delivered a free-kick into the box, and Cahill snuck in around the back, getting free and heading in from point-blank range. Fabregas earned his sixth assist of the Premier League season, tied for most on Chelsea despite playing just 521 minutes. Costa nearly had a third four minutes later, but was stuffed by Jakupovic from a tight angle.

The three points pushed Chelsea eight points clear at the top, with Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester City dropping points. Hull City’s loss sees them remain in the relegation zone, in 19th on 16 points, three from safety.

Real Madrid loses Modric and Marcelo to injuries in Malaga win

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 21:  Marcelo of Real Madrid CF comes off substituted during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Malaga CF at the Bernabeu on January 21, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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The 40-game unbeaten run seems like a distant memory.

Real Madrid had lost two straight matches before a 2-1 La Liga win over Malaga on Saturday, but despite the three points, they still did lose in a way.

Los Blancos lost both Marcelo and Luka Modric to injury in the match, and both could potentially miss up to a month of time.

Modric has been in and out of the squad this season due to injuries, and during his other lengthy spell on the sidelines, he was replaced adequately by 22-year-old Mateo Kovacic, and he was the man to replace Modric against Malaga with 12 minutes remaining. Reports say the Croatian suffered an adductor injury which can be quite painful and could keep him off the field for a number of weeks.

Marcelo, meanwhile, has been a staple in the Madrid lineup, appearing in the last 11 league matches and starting all but two of those. Marcelo was brought off just 25 minutes into the Malaga win reportedly with a hamstring problem, replaced by Isco. The likely long-term replacement for the 28-year-old Brazilian would be Nacho Fernandez, who has seen time this season on both defensive flanks.

The injuries puts not just the immediate La Liga and Copa del Rey futures of the two in jeopardy, but also could affect their availability for the start of the Champions League knockout stage which begins on February 15th against Napoli.