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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.

Kolo Toure undergoing medical ahead of Rodgers reunion at Celtic

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 13:  Kolo Toure of Liverpool talks during the Liverpool UEFA Europa League Cup Final Media Day at Melwood Training Ground on May 13, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Sky Sports reports that longtime Liverpool defender Kolo Toure has found a home under his former manager.

The 35-year-old center back was released by the Reds this summer, and is undergoing a medical ahead of joining Brendan Rodgers at Celtic.

[ MORE: Sunderland hires Moyes ]

Toure joined Liverpool from Manchester City in 2013, one year after Rodgers took the helm at Anfield.

The move would be Celtic’s second signing under Rodgers, as the Glasgow side added French forward Moussa Dembele from Fulham earlier this summer.

Report: Juve buys Higuain for $103m, tipped as precursor to Pogba sale

NAPLES, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Gonzalo Higuain (R) and MArek Hamsik of Napoli celebrate the equalizing goal during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and Empoli FC at Stadio San Paolo on January 31, 2016 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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It’s a move that screams its own headlines, yet is being tipped as a precursor to a larger one.

According to Sky Sports, Juventus has purchased Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli for an incredible $103 million, equaling the second-highest transfer fee in football history (Cristiano Ronaldo).

Higuain is 28 years old, making the fee even harder to fathom despite his status as the reigning Serie A goal leader. His 36 goals in 35 matches was by far his best campaign, though he’s always been a productive striker.

[ MORE: Sunderland hires Moyes ]

Moreover, the massive money only fuels the fire that Juventus is possibly selling Paul Pogba to Manchester United or Real Madrid for what will certainly be a world record fee, eclipsing the $110 million Real paid for Gareth Bale in 2013.

Higuain was also tipped for a move to Arsenal, but that always seemed improbable given the reported fees and Arsene Wenger‘s preference for younger players.

It’s a huge risk for Juventus, even given the probability of Pogba money arriving in Turin.

Sunderland hires Moyes to replace Allardyce as manager

FLORENCE, ITALY - MARCH 07: David Moyes speaks during the "Panchina D'oro season 2014-2015" at Coverciano on March 7, 2016 in Florence, Italy.  (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
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SUNDERLAND, England (AP) David Moyes was hired to take charge of Sunderland as Sam Allardyce‘s successor on Saturday, returning to Premier League management two years after being fired by Manchester United.

Moyes signed a four-year contract less than 24 hours after Sunderland announced Allardyce’s departure to become England manager. Allardyce secured Sunderland’s Premier League status after inheriting a struggling team last October but the northeast club doesn’t want to be in regular relegation battles.

[ MORE: Five relegated transfer targets ]

“It is our aim to become a better, stronger and more stable football club,” Sunderland chairman Ellis Short said. “With a manager of David’s caliber and experience at the helm, we have a fantastic opportunity to begin looking upwards, rather than downwards every season.”

The 53-year-old Moyes has a managerial career to rebuild at Sunderland after three disappointing years.

The Scot’s relative success at Everton from 2002-13 earned him the high-profile job at United after Alex Ferguson’s retirement. But Moyes was fired 10 months into a six-year contract after missing out on Champions League qualification.

Moyes next headed to Spain but he was dismissed by Real Sociedad last November after a poor start to the season. Now Moyes is hoping for another period of stability in his dugout at Sunderland.

[ MORE: Steffen leaves Freiburg for Crew ]

“I have taken over a big British club, with a great support and I’m looking forward to working in the Premier League again,” Moyes said. “I look forward to continuing the good work done by Sam.”

Sunderland said it had been pursuing Moyes for almost five years.

“I have spoken with him on many occasions and I have always been hugely impressed,” Short said. “He was my number one managerial target for the last five appointments, but his desire to honor existing contracts meant we were not able to bring him to Sunderland previously.”

USWNT cruises past Costa Rica in final pre-Olympic warm up

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 09: Julie Johnston #8 of the United States shoots past Nomoumelelo Nyandeni #18 of South Africa during a friendly match at Soldier Field on July 9, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The United States defeated South Africa 1-0. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The U.S. Women’s National Team wasn’t really lacking confidence heading into Friday night’s clash with Costa Rica, but the squad’s utter dominance certainly didn’t hurt things as Jill Ellis’ group gets ready to head to Brazil for next month’s Olympic Games.

[ MORE: Pulisic says Klinsmann links to England job made sense ]

The USWNT captured a 4-0 win against Costa Rica in the side’s final send-off match before the Olympics, extending the no. 1 ranked team in the world’s unbeaten streak to 15 matches.

It only took a quarter of an hour the USWNT to find the lead, but it always looked like it was coming for Jill Ellis’ group. Meghan Klingenburg made a great run deep into the Costa Rica area, and played a perfect square pass across the face of goal for Crystal Dunn to give the U.S. the lead in the 15th minute.

Mallory Pugh got her name on the scoreboard in the 22nd minute after making a brilliant darting run forward and beating the Costa Rican goalkeeper at the near post.

The U.S. pushed their advantage to 3-0 on the stroke of halftime when Becky Sauerbrunn’s free kick was headed home by Carli Lloyd in first-half stoppage time.

With a number of chances in the second half that didn’t take the right bounce for the USWNT, Christen Press made no mistake from close range in the 79th minute and gave the home nation a four-goal lead.

Dunn continues to impress on the international stage, and nearly gave the U.S. an advantage after just seven minutes. The 24-year-old gathered the ball inside the penalty box before unleashing a strong effort that struck the crossbar and stayed out.

The U.S. found another dangerous opportunity three minutes later, when Carli Lloyd was brought down from behind on the edge of the penalty area. Costa Rica defender Katherine Alvarado was shown a yellow card for the rash tackle, but the USWNT couldn’t make anything of the ensuing free kick.

While Costa Rica put in a valiant effort against their competition, the Ticas were no match for the Americans, and failed to muster up any shots on target throughout the night. The 29th ranked team in the FIFA World Rankings struggled to move the ball past midfield for most of the outing largely due to the USWNT’s constant press.