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.

Pep: “Celebrations weren’t too much”

AP Photo/Rui Vieira
Leave a comment

Pep Guardiola is staying as close-lipped as possible when it comes to the post-match derby dust-up between his Manchester City and Manchester United on Sunday.

Reports say United boss Mourinho charged into the visitors locker room to protest loud celebrations following City’s 2-1 win at Old Trafford. For his troubles, he allegedly got milk thrown at him and City assistant Mikel Arteta ended up with a cut face.

[ MORE: Klopp responds to interview hubbub ]

Guardiola said the celebrations were his idea, and he doesn’t want to say much more about United’s reactions.

“I am the guy who encouraged each other to celebrate. What happened, happened. We will make statement to the FA. I am not going to comment about that. Celebrations were’t too much.”

“Everybody fought hard to win. We could have scored more goals. After the game we celebrated with the fans and went to the changing room and celebrated the win.”

 

He’d only elaborate by saying, in essence, you celebrate when you win and don’t when you lose, and that other teams celebrate winning in similar rivalries in similar fashion.

Now we await Mourinho. He’s a wild card, but with legal entities involved we wouldn’t be surprised to get little to nothing.

Klopp says post-match interview not a big deal

Nick Potts/PA via AP
1 Comment

It wouldn’t be too wild to call Jurgen Klopp’s Sunday post-match interview the most circulated exchange in the soccer world, at least in recent memory.

Klopp was back behind a microphone on Tuesday as Liverpool prepares for West Bromwich Albion, and was asked about his testy exchange with a reporter following the Reds’ 1-1 draw with Everton in the Merseyside Derby.

[ RECAP: Liverpool 1-1 Everton ]

He says it’s in the past for him and pretty much everyone. From The Liverpool Echo:

“Now I’m completely relaxed, I wasn’t five minutes after the game. Sometimes you look into the eyes of journalists and you feel they aren’t too interested in what you have to say. I’m not an actor.”

“It was nothing, I didn’t use any words I have to take back. I don’t like it but I cannot change it because I felt like this at that moment. I cannot act differently, but I can keep myself calm. It’s just an interview. I don’t think anybody remembers it. It was just an interview, nothing else.”

We’ll say this about the 1-1 draw: it still feels hollow, as Everton executed one of the greatest thefts in the Premier League this season. Even the awarded PK — Dejan Lovren‘s two-handed shove to Dominic Calvert-Lewin was a silly play in a non-threatening spot — was one of those, “Well, sure, but…” calls.

Liverpool dominated the game, and didn’t get three points. Everton got a point, but will want most of its day back. Thank goodness we get another chance at an enjoyable Merseyside Derby in the FA Cup next month.

Wenger: Man City, United should look to sumo wrestlers

Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Arsenal is readying for a visit to West Ham United, but Arsene Wenger‘s mind took a detour to Japan.

In a wide-ranging pre-match interview touching on Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud, and the Manchester Tunnel Fracas (TM), it was the last topic that had Wenger musing on the post-match actions of sumo wrestlers.

[ MORE: Premier League Tues. preview ]

For those who missed it, there was an alleged dust-up between Manchester City and Manchester United after Jose Mourinho and his men objected to boisterous City celebrations in the away locker room on Sunday.

Ever the politician, the rail thin manager called upon rather large athletes to make the point of what he’d like to see. From Sky Sports:

“It happened to us, it’s happened to them. It’s unfortunate. Ideally you would commit 100% on the pitch and be an angel after. It’s not always the case. You want to keep that passion on the pitch.

“It is difficult to take when you lose a game, to see the celebration. When I was in Japan, I liked sumo wrestling because you could never tell who had won. The winner never showed his happiness as there’s a deep respect for the opponent.”

Wenger’s last managerial stop came in 1996 with Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan.

There was plenty more from Wenger, who was asked about the statuses of Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil.

For the latter, it’s relatively straight-forward: There’s still no new contract between the playmaker and Arsenal, though no final offer has been made and Wenger remains optimistic about the hiring.

As for Giroud, who’s been tipped for a move away from Arsenal for some time, Wenger admits it’s tricky. The super sub would start on most teams but is quite valuable to Arsenal as the usual backup to Alexandre Lacazette.

And it’s not like Arsenal has hurt the Frenchman’s stock with one of the best international sides in the world.

“He’s a very important player and I have big respect for him. Look how many French caps he has got since he came here. He’s not wasted his time. I can understand his frustrations. He’s played many games, much more than many speak about. He’s played more than Lacazette for example. When you are at a big club with many strikers, you can’t guarantee.

“Personally I want him to stay at the club until the end of the season. Then we will see.”

If Wenger can massage the full season out of Giroud and then sell him, Arsenal will have to call it a win. But how different might the Gunners look next August, with Giroud, Ozil, and Alexis Sanchez all expected to be out the door?

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

Getty Images
Leave a comment

With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.