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Preview, Germany vs. Argentina: Messi to define, be defined by World Cup final


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.

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.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona win big in another dominant performance

<> at Camp Nou on November 28, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.
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Catch up on all of Saturday’s La Liga action, as the trio of Messi-Suarez-Neymar continues to terrorize defenses.

Barcelona 4-0 Real Sociedad

In case you haven’t heard, Barcelona is scary good. Coming off of brilliant 4-0 and 6-1 wins over Real Madrid and Roma respectively, the Catalans trounced Real Sociedad at Camp Nou. It was the usual suspects once again, as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar (x2) scored the goals in another masterful performance. The M-S-N trio has accounted for 30 of Barcelona’s 33 goals in La Liga this season.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Espanyol

While the boys from Barcelona may be getting all the headlines, Antoine Griezmann has been having a great season for Atletico Madrid. The French international scored the game-winner in Atletico’s 1-0 win over Espanyol, his tenth in all competitions this season. The good news is that Atleti sit second on the table with a five-point lead over Real Madrid in third, while the bad news is that midfielder Tiago broke his leg in the match.

[ WATCH: Everton, Bournemouth trade late goals in stoppage-time thriller ]

Malaga 2-2 Granada

In a battle of teams fighting for La Liga survival, Granada came from behind to steal a draw at Malaga. The home-side was leading 2-0 until Granada tallied twice in the final ten minutes to take a huge point for the club. Malaga remains glued to the bottom of the table, while Granada is currently out of the drop zone on goal differential.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Levante 0-1 Real Betis
Las Palmas 0-2 Deportivo
Celta Vigo 2-1 Sporting Gijon
Getafe vs. Villarreal (Sunday, 6 a.m. ET)
Eibar vs. Real Madrid (Sunday, 10 a.m. ET)
Rayo vs. Athletic Bilbao (Sunday, 12:15 p.m. ET)
Sevilla vs. Valencia (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET)

PL Sunday Preview: Spurs host Chelsea; Liverpool take on Swansea

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 01:  Diego Costa of Chelsea pulls on the shirt of Harry Kane of Spurs during the Capital One Cup Final match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium on March 1, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Week 14 of the Premier League wraps up on Sunday, as four more matches take place across England.

[ MORE: PL Saturday roundup ]

Saturday’s action saw 25 goals from six games, so we should be in for a good day of football.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea 7 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra

Unbeaten in 12 league matches, Tottenham will look to extend that streak to 13 in a London derby against Chelsea. Last season’s fixture between these two sides at White Hart Lane was arguably the match of the season, as Spurs stunned Chelsea in a wild 5-3 win. Harry Kane bagged a brace in that match, and with his current form, he’s likely to tally again on Sunday. Kane has scored in six straight matches for Tottenham, grabbing nine goals over that span. While Spurs have been one of the hottest teams in the league, Chelsea have won two straight and this match could be a turning point in their season.

West Ham vs. West Brom  — 9:05 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra

After a strong start to the season, West Ham have gotten just one point from their last three matches. The Hammers have struggled Dimitri Payet out injured, and now face a West Brom side that is very stout defensively. For West Brom, the Baggies are looking to build on a big win over Arsenal last weekend, as Tony Pulis has his side quietly creeping up the table.

[ RELATED: Should struggling Newcastle sack Steve McClaren? ]

Liverpool vs. Swansea City11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra

A big match up at Anfield, as a struggling Swansea City side are in desperate need of a result against Liverpool. The Swans have just one win in their last ten matches in all competitions, and have fallen down to 14th on the table. Garry Monk‘s future at the club have come into question, but a result at Anfield would change that tune quickly. For the Reds, a dominant 4-1 win over Manchester City should have given Jurgen Klopp‘s side a huge confidence boost, as the German boss has lost just one of his nine matches in charge.

Norwich City vs. Arsenal11:15 a.m. ET online via Live Extra

A win would put Arsenal back in the top-three, as the Gunners travel to Carrow Road for a match against Norwich City. Arsene Wenger‘s men dropped their last Premier League match at West Brom, but rebounded nicely with a midweek win over Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League. For Norwich, the Canaries have been struggling and sit just two points above the drop. They’ll look to squeak out a point against Arsenal, who haven’t won in the league since Halloween.

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern win, USMNT’s Johnson leads Gladbach

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Catch up on all of Saturday’s action from Germany, as Bayern Munich continue to dominate the Bundesliga.

Bayern Munich 2-0 Hertha Berlin

Another day in the Bundesliga, another win for Bayern Munich. Goals from Thomas Mueller and Kingsley Coman gave Bayern an 11-point gap at the top of the table, as the Bavarians are yet to lose through 14 matches. Even more impressive, Pep Guardiola’s men have a ridiculous goal differential of +37.

Hoffenheim 3-3 Borussia Monchengladbach

United States international Fabian Johnson scored twice for Gladbach to help his side come back for a 3-3 draw against Hoffenheim. Johnson opened the scoring in the 5th minute and added the game’s final goal in the 87th to help extend Gladbach’s unbeaten run to nine matches.

Werder Bremen 1-3 Hamburg

Werder Bremen’s struggles continue, as the club dropped a league-high ninth match this season. In the 103rd Northern derby, Hamburg jumped out to a two-goal lead before the break and added a third in the second half to ease to a 3-1 win.

[ RELATED: Premier League Saturday roundup — Man City go top ]

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Darmstadt 0-0 Koln — Scoreless draw at the Bollenfalltor Stadion
Hannover 4-0 Ingolstadt — Clinical Hannover cruise at home
Mainz 2-1 Eintracht Frankfurt —
Eintracht drop third straight
Borussia Dortmund vs. Stuttgart —
Sunday, 9:30 a.m. ET
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Schalke —
Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET
Augsburg vs. Wolfsburg —
Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET


Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Bayern Munich 14 13 1 0 42 5 37 8-0-0 5-1-0 40
Borussia Dortmund 13 9 2 2 36 18 18 5-1-0 4-1-2 29
VfL Wolfsburg 13 7 3 3 23 15 8 6-1-0 1-2-3 24
Mönchengladbach 14 7 2 5 28 22 6 4-1-2 3-1-3 23
Hertha BSC Berlin 14 7 2 5 18 17 1 4-1-1 3-1-4 23
Hamburger SV 14 6 3 5 17 18 -1 2-2-2 4-1-3 21
FSV Mainz 05 14 6 2 6 20 20 0 4-0-4 2-2-2 20
Bayer Leverkusen 13 6 2 5 17 17 0 3-1-2 3-1-3 20
FC Schalke 04 13 6 2 5 17 19 -2 3-2-2 3-0-3 20
1. FC Köln 14 5 5 4 15 18 -3 2-4-1 3-1-3 20
FC Ingolstadt 04 14 5 4 5 10 14 -4 2-1-3 3-3-2 19
Darmstadt 14 3 6 5 14 19 -5 1-4-3 2-2-2 15
Eintracht Frankfurt 14 3 5 6 18 22 -4 1-3-2 2-2-4 14
Hannover 96 14 4 2 8 17 24 -7 2-0-5 2-2-3 14
Werder Bremen 14 4 1 9 14 28 -14 1-0-6 3-1-3 13
VfB Stuttgart 13 3 1 9 17 31 -14 2-0-5 1-1-4 10
FC Augsburg 13 2 3 8 17 25 -8 1-1-5 1-2-3 9
1899 Hoffenheim 14 1 6 7 15 23 -8 0-4-3 1-2-4 9

VIDEO: Humble Jamie Vardy speaks on scoring in 11-straight games

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Jamie Vardy made Premier League history today, scoring in his 11th-straight match in Leicester City’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United.

Despite breaking a record that stood for 12 years, the Leicester City striker didn’t look too fazed in his post-match interview.

[ WATCH: Vardy breaks record ]

Speaking after the draw, Vardy said his record-breaking run hasn’t really sunk in yet. While the supporters at the KP were chanting “Jamie Vardy’s having a party,” the 28-year-old will be going home and “chilling,” rather than going out to celebrate.

Vardy said he’ll be back at work to train on Monday, and is already looking forward to next weekend’s match against Swansea City, where he’ll have a chance to extend his record.