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.

EFL Cup Weds preview: East Lancashire Derby highlights slate

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Eighteen teams booked spots Tuesday in the League Cup’s third round, with Watford the lone Premier League side to take a fall.

Six more try their luck on Wednesday, the last day of tournament play before the big boys join up.

[ MORE: EFL Cup Tues. wrap ]

A sleepy big affair is the East Lancashire Derby between Burnley and now League One side Blackburn Rovers, a rivalry which has been staged in three leagues or competitions since the turn of the century. This makes it four, joining the Premier League (2009-10), FA Cup (2004-05) and Championship (six times since 2012-13).

Burnley has three wins and three draws since its last loss to Blackburn, which came via David Dunn penalty at Turf Moor in a Premier League match on March 28, 2010.

Make no mistake, Clarets goalkeeper Tom Heaton thinks it’ll be a fantastic affair (from burnleyfootballclub.com):

“And for the players. Make no mistake, we were all delighted when the draw came in,” said Heaton. “It’s a fantastic match we are all looking forward to. It’s a fantastic night as players, fans and for the club.

“We’ll be going there geared up to win the game and give it everything we’ve got. The new lads coming in will certainly get an eye opener for the atmosphere and how good it is. They’re brilliant games to play in, I’ve enjoyed every minute of them.”

If you’re surprised by the rivalry, you have company in Blackburn boss Tony Mowbray. From Rovers.co.uk:

“I have to say living in the north east of England, Suffolk and Scotland most of my life I never would have grasped that Blackburn and Burnley and the geography of how close they were to be honest,” he said.

“It is not something that has hit me in the face before of a huge rivalry and yet I can feel it from the people around the building who have lived here all their lives how important this game is to them. … We’ll give it our very best shot and leave no stone unturned in trying to get a result.”

Elsewhere…

Southampton, fresh off adding $19 million Dutch center back Wesley Hoedt, will host Wolverhampton Wanderers at St. Mary’s, one of four 2:45 p.m. ET kickoffs.

Also kicking off at that time is Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest at St. James Park, with USMNT fullback Eric Lichaj likely to feature for the visitors, as well as Rotherham United’s visit to Huddersfield Town and Cheltenham Town’s trip to West Ham United.

A quarter-hour later, the final two second round matches kickoff when Burnley hosts Blackburn Rovers and Rochdale heads to Stoke City.

Southampton lands $19 million Dutch CB Hoedt

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Southampton’s added another defender who checks all the boxes, and used its press release to cement its status on the future of want-away center back Virgil Van Dijk.

Saints added Lazio center back Wesley Hoedt on Tuesday, with the reported fee in the neighborhood of $19 million for the 4-times capped Dutch international.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Gooch scores for Sunderland ]

The 6-foot-2 defender is 23 years old, and played 23 matches for i Biancocelesti last season.

Here’s Saints vice chairman Les Reed:

“Finding a naturally left-footed player is even more difficult. We have been tracking central defenders on our target list for the past 12 months and Wesley has always been at the top of that list, so it was important to act when the opportunity came.”

As our own Joe Prince-Wright pointed out, Saints aren’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for Van Dijk’s departure.

Saints also have Maya Yoshida — who won a penalty for Saints this weekend — Jack Stephens, Maya Yoshida, Jan Bednarek and Florin Gardos in their corps.

Will Van Dijk stay? Betting sites have him at 5:6 odds to stay at Southampton, but somehow 1:1 to join Liverpool and 7:1 to head to Chelsea (Man City gets 24:1 odds).

At this point, we’d love to see Van Dijk stay and buck the summer’s (actually much longer than that) gossip as Saints fight for a Top Six place.

UCL preview: Three keys to Liverpool-Hoffenheim

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A pair of away goals are under Liverpool’s wing as the Reds prepare for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League playoff round second leg versus Hoffenheim at Anfield.

That’s great, but it’s Mark Uth’s late concession goal for Hoffenheim that will have Liverpool supporters wary ahead of the return match.

Three keys to the match for Liverpool? Well, let’s start with an easy one.

1) Avoid these score lines: The 2-1 score line works for the Reds, of course, who will only fail to reach the group stage of the UEFA Champions League through some unlikely scenarios:

  • A two-goals or worse loss at Anfield
  • A 2-1 loss plus failing in penalty kicks
  • A one-goal loss while conceding three or more times

2) Don’t allow gaps in the midfield: Kerem Demirbay was being a little cheeky when he said, “We play better football than Liverpool,” and the sides have one major similarity: If you give them room, they can kill you.

Demirbay is a great example of this. The Confederations Cup winner can rip teams apart in the middle of the pitch, and giving him room allows him to choose between unleashing a cannon from distance and spotting Serge Gnabry, Andrej Kramaric, Sandro Wagner, or even Uth for chances on goal. Heck, even Adam Szalai on the bench is a very good option.

Gnabry and Kramaric played less than a half hour each in Hoffenheim’s 1-0 Bundesliga win over the weekend, while Wagner didn’t play at all. Game on.

3) Embrace the occasion: Jurgen Klopp branded Wednesday’s match and the presumed entry into the UCL group stage “the next step” in the club’s evolution under his watch.

This is Liverpool’s second UCL campaign of this decade, and the first UCL night at Anfield since a 1-1 draw against Basel on Dec. 9, 2014.

That night, Brendan Rodgers trotted out this XI: Mignolet, Johnson, Lovren, Skrtel, Enrique, Gerrard (who scored), Henderson, Lucas, Allen, Sterling, Lambert. His subs used? Coutinho, Moreno, Markovic (the last name earned a red card).

In previous home group games against Real Madrid and Ludogorets Razgrad, the Reds managed two more goals. Gerrard had another and Mario Balotelli the other.

So, and this is hopefully a bit overblown but certainly a concern: A whopping six Liverpool players have played in a home UCL match for Liverpool and no one on the Reds roster has scored a goal at Anfield in the competition.

EFL Cup wrap: USMNT’s Gooch shines; Watford upset

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Six Premier League teams dodged upsets upon entering the League Cup, stylized as the EFL Cup for a second season, but a seventh was not as fortunate.

[ MORE: 426 world clubs, ranked weekly ]


Watford 2-3 Bristol City

Etienne Capoue scored just after halftime to give the Hornets a leg up, but goals from Freddie Hinds and Bobby Reid eight minutes apart gave the Robins a lead that Niclas Eliasson buttressed in stoppage time. Adrian Mariappa pulled one back, but it wasn’t enough for Marco Silva‘s men.

Crystal Palace 2-1 Ipswich Town

The unbeaten Tractor Boys were as much of a problem as advertised, but James McArthur scored in the 76th and 84th minutes to give the Eagles a spot in the next round. Man City loanee Bersant Celina nabbed Ipswich Town’s lone goal.

MK Dons 1-4 Swansea City

Leroy Fer gave Swans a pair of leads at 1-0 and 2-1 before Tammy Abraham and Jordan Ayew scored late to salt away the win at Stadium MK.

Sheffield United 1-4 Leicester City

The popular score line saw Islam Slimani bag a brace in between goals from Demarai Gray and Ahmed Musa.

Carlisle United 1-2 Sunderland

USMNT youngster Lynden Gooch scored an 80th minute winner after assisting on Donald Love‘s opener, as the Black Cats scored a road win.

It’s the 21-year-old Gooch’s first senior goal for the Black Cats in his 19th appearance. It’s also his first assist and should give food for thought to boss Simon Grayson, who has been using him off the bench. Gooch played 362 Premier League minutes last season.

Tuesday’s other results
Aston Villa 4-1 Wigan Athletic
Leeds United 5-1 Newport County
Middlesbrough 3-0 Scunthorpe United
Norwich City 4-1 Charlton Athletic
QPR 1-4 Brentford
Fulham 0-1 Bristol Rovers
Cardiff City 1-2 Burton Albion
Doncaster 2-0 Hull City
Brighton and Hove Albion 1-0 Barnet
Accrington Stanley 1-3 West Brom
Birmingham City 1-2 Bournemouth
Reading 3-1 (aet) Millwall
Bolton 3-2 Sheffield Wednesday
Grimsby Town 0-1 Derby County (1st round match*)

*Derby will face Barnsley in a 2nd round match