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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.

Serie A: Roma triumph in Rome derby, still level with AC Milan in 2nd

ROME, ITALY - DECEMBER 04:  Daniele De Rossi (C) with his teammates of AS Roma celebrates the victory after the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AS Roma at Stadio Olimpico on December 4, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images
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A roundup of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga & Serie A roundup ]

Lazio 0-2 Roma

A win would have put Lazio two points clear of their capital rivals and right into the thick of the race for second. Instead, they suffered a 2-0 defeat at the Olympic Stadium. Kevin Strootman put the “visitors” ahead in the 64th minute with a simple finish following Wallace‘s disastrous giveaway atop Lazio’s 18-yard box. The Dutch midfielder then proceeded to pathetically writhe around in pain after Danilo Cataldi tugged on the back of his jersey, which was allegedly instigated by Strootman spraying water on the substitute as he made his way back to midfield for the restart.

Radja Nainggolan finished off the Biancocelesti with Roma’s second goal of the game in the 77th minute, a pinpoint, bouncing effort from 30 yards out with which Federico Marchetti couldn’t cope. The Belgian broke free in the middle of the field, dribbled past a defender, and fired from distance to make it 2-0. The victory sees the Giallorossi remain just four points back of Juventus in the league table, level on points with AC Milan in the race for second.

AC Milan 2-1 Crotone

Speaking of the Rossoneri, Vincenzo Montella’s side came back from a goal down in the first half to defeat bottom-of-the-league Cronto at the San Siro Stadium. The victory keeps Milan level with Roma for that second and final automatic UEFA Champions League spot.

Crotone went 1-0 up in the 26th minute, but 21-year-old Mario Pasalic equalized four minutes before halftime with a tap-in from three yards out, followed by Gianluca Lapadula’s winner in the 86th minute, a scrappy finish following a failed clearance of a free kick, which prevented one of the most embarrassing results of the still-young season thus far.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Fiorentina 2-1 Palermo
Pescara 1-1 Cagliari
Sampdoria 2-0 Torino
Sassuolo 3-0 Empoli

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Juventus 15 12 0 3 32 13 19 8-0-0 4-0-3 36
 Roma 15 10 2 3 35 16 19 7-0-0 3-2-3 32
 AC Milan 15 10 2 3 27 19 8 6-1-1 4-1-2 32
 Napoli 15 8 4 3 27 15 12 5-2-1 3-2-2 28
 Lazio 15 8 4 3 27 16 11 5-1-2 3-3-1 28

La Liga scoreboard

Athletic Bilbao 3-1 Eibar
Real Betis 3-3 Celta Vigo
Alaves 3-1 Las Palmas
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Osasuna
Valencia 2-2 Malaga

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Real Madrid 14 10 4 0 37 12 25 5-2-0 5-2-0 34
 Barcelona 14 8 4 2 34 15 19 3-3-1 5-1-1 28
 Sevilla 14 8 3 3 25 20 5 6-0-1 2-3-2 27
 Atlético Madrid 14 7 4 3 28 11 17 4-2-1 3-2-2 25
 Villarreal 14 6 5 3 19 10 9 5-1-1 1-4-2 23
 Real Sociedad 13 7 2 4 22 14 8 4-2-1 3-0-3 23
 Athletic 14 7 2 5 20 17 3 5-1-1 2-1-4 23

Amid leaked docs, Ronaldo’s agent publishes tax document in Spain

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 15:  Crsitiano Ronaldo (R) speaks with his agent Jorge Mendes (R) after his signing contract renewal For Real Madrid at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 15, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo’s agent has released a document that allegedly shows the player is in compliance with Spain’s tax authority.

The document published by company Gestifute, ran by Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes, allegedly shows that Spanish fiscal authorities certify that the player is “up to date on his obligations.”

The document’s release comes a day after European media outlets released what it claimed were details of apparent tax arrangements made by top soccer players and coaches, including Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho and Mesut Ozil.

Gestifute said Saturday, “Ronaldo has always acted in good faith in this matter, as the fact that he has never been involved in any conflict with tax authorities from any country where he has lived clearly shows.”

Gestifute also published a similar document in Mourinho’s name on Friday.

VIDEO: Mourinho again harps on Manchester United performance despite result

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The third straight 1-1 draw for Manchester United has left Jose Mourinho little more than a broken record.

Everton scored on a late penalty to even things up, and it gave the Portuguese manager even more fodder for his tiresome narrative.

“We were the best team by far,” Mourinho said. “But we didn’t win. We had chances for 2-0, we had the ball off the post, and then we concede a goal in the last minute.”

[ RECAP: Everton grabs a point against Manchester United on a late penalty ]

When asked if his team dropped off at the end, he rejected that notion, and instead decided to lament a perceived double standard among fans and the media. Mourinho feels the focus is always on a negative, whether that is the result or the performance. “When my team wins matches playing a different [less entertaining] style of football, then what matters is the style of football, not the results. You have in these moment teams in the Premier League playing defensive and counter-attack football and getting results. That is phenomenal, in your words. When my team is playing extremely well, the results are more important.”

“I am happy that my team is playing really well, even in difficult matches like today, and it’s a problem for us that we are not getting what we deserve and it’s a problem for us that we have a position in the table that has no relation with the quality of the football we are showing.”

[ RELATED: Should Marcus Rojo have been sent off? ]

He would not comment on either of the major refereeing decisions, those being the Marcos Rojo yellow card in the 16th minute and the late penalty whistled on Marouane Fellaini.

VIDEO: Howe says Bournemouth hero Fraser “deserved his opportunity”

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Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe had time to collect himself after the Cherries stunned Liverpool, coming back from 3-1 down to win 4-3 in injury time.

He was very praiseworthy of the opponents, who appeared to have an easy day after scoring twice early on before Bournemouth stormed back later.

“It was a great game, obviously from our perspective because we won, but I thought Liverpool showed their quality in the first half,” Howe said. “I thought they were excellent, but we showed a great attitude and never gave up.”

After falling behind 2-0 thanks to a pair of errors by goalkeeper Artur Boruc, it was a tough road to halftime, and although they got one back, Liverpool responded quickly to again restore the two-goal lead at 3-1. It looked bleak for the Cherries at home.

“It was a tough afternoon,” Howe said. “We knew the quality of Liverpool, we knew how they played. They did it very well, and we didn’t, we were flat, and it really took our substitutes to have a big impact in the game and liven us up.”

Finally, the Cherries boss said that he had his eye on the hero Ryan Fraser for some time, and that he knew he was ready to take his chance. “He’s been training like that for a few weeks now, I think he’s deserved his opportunity. He came on the pitch and gave us that belief.” The 22-year-old came on and scored his first Premier League goal as well as assisted two others in the comeback.