Kyle Bonn

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After Argentina miracle, Messi leads Barcelona at Atletico

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi has willed Argentina into the World Cup.

Now he can exhale and get back to what he does best: Keeping Barcelona atop the Spanish league.

Just when the stakes couldn’t have been higher, Messi struck three goals to bring Argentina back for a 3-1 win at Ecuador on Tuesday and seize a last-minute ticket to Russia.

The star forward will have little chance to rest, however, with Barcelona counting on him to lead the team in its visit to Atletico Madrid on Saturday in the Spanish capital.

THE SAVIOR

Messi has won a combined 17 trophies for Barcelona in the Champions League, Spanish league and Copa del Rey.

But his success with Barcelona has only increased the pressure on him to deliver silverware for Argentina. So far, he has lifted Argentina to only finals in the World Cup and Copa America.

Argentina struggled to produce goals throughout South American qualifying for the World Cup heading into the must-win match in Quito. And its chances looked grim when Ecuador scored in the first minute.

“It would’ve been crazy if Argentina didn’t play the World Cup,” Messi said after his hat trick.

FORGET NEYMAR

When Neymar bolted for Paris Saint-Germain in August, Barcelona entered into panic mode and scrambled to buy players to fill the gap left by the Brazil striker.

It had to break a club record for spending on a transfer to pry Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund, only for the France forward to tear a tendon in his left leg in just his third appearance.

But throughout the turmoil and turnover, Messi has responded by playing one of his best periods of football.

The 30-year-old Messi has 11 goals in seven league matches, including one four-goal outing and a treble. That has helped Barcelona outscore opponents 23-2 in the league.

He has also netted twice in the Champions League in wins over Juventus and Sporting Lisbon.

NEXT UP

Atletico is the most serious test yet for Barcelona in the league.

Yet, despite its reputation as one of the toughest defensive sides in Spain, Atletico is one of Messi’s favorite victims.

Messi has scored against Atletico 27 times in 34 matches across all competitions, including 12 at its former stadium.

Atletico hosts Barcelona for the first time at its new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.

Atletico is unbeaten in the league, although it lost to Chelsea 2-1 at home in the Champions League.

Barcelona leads second-place Sevilla by five points. Atletico is fourth and trails the pacesetter by six points.

Real Madrid is seven points adrift before visiting Getafe on Saturday.

RB Leipzig claims they nearly had Mbappe signed at 16

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Kylian Mbappe spent his youth in the AS Monaco developmental system, and as a result, he became one of the most expensive players ever sold, moving to Paris Saint-Germain last summer.

But what if things had gone differently? According to a Bundesliga executive, they almost did. Very, very different.

[ MORE: World Cup power rankings – 9 months B.W.C. ]

RB Leipzig sporting director Ralf Ragnick told German publication Bild, “We had Kylian Mbappe all but signed.” At the time of his upbringing through the ranks at Monaco, Leipzig was in the 2.Bundesliga, having been brought up two leagues by manager Alexander Zorniger, but he stepped down in February 2015, with Mbappe potentially looking to leave Monaco.

“The problem was we had just parted ways with Alexander Zorniger. We didn’t know at the time who would be our coach and how it would continue.” 16-year-old Mbappe had an idea…Ragnick himself.

If Ragnick could ensure “that I would be coach, he would entrust me with the boy immediately. But I couldn’t give him that promise already in February.”

Achim Beierlorzer took over on an interim basis, and Mbappe would stay with Monaco. Ragnick became manager in the summer, spending a year in charge and earning them promotion to the Bundesliga, but it was too late, and the rest for Mbappe is history. Ragnick would step down a year later, but stayed on as sporting director there.

Top Premier League storylines – Week 8

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The international break is over, and while some hearts are broken and others are lifted with euphoria, all players must get back to work regardless of if they will be headed to Russia next summer.

From a club perspective, international breaks bring a chance for players to improve their form with a slight change of scenery, or the possible occurrence of a slight drop in momentum. But most of all, they just want their players to stay healthy.

[ MORE: JPW’s PL predictions | TV, stream schedule for the weekend ]

With the players back to their training grounds, here are the four biggest storylines for the return of Premier League action…

Liverpool tests itself against the Premier League’s best

Last season, Liverpool was terrible against the lesser teams and up for it in games against the best. This time around, Jurgen Klopp will hope for more of the same – at least, the positive part – as he hosts heated rival Manchester United at 7:30 a.m. ET on Saturday (Watch live, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). The Red Devils may not be atop the Premier League table, but that’s only because Manchester City has matched them the entire way, only slightly ahead by just a single goal on differential.

Unfortunately the Reds could not complete their international break objective – Sadio Mane returns injured and will miss six weeks, a massive blow to Liverpool’s top four hopes. Nevertheless, they still have Klopp, who has matched up extremely well against Jose Mourinho, with just one loss in seven matches against this weekend’s opposing boss. Can Liverpool manage to stave off the high-flying Red Devils?


Can West Ham break down Burnley?

The Hammers have put their poor start behind them and are beginning a climb up the table. A win this weekend against Burnley at Turf Moor at 10:00 a.m. ET (Watch live on NBCSports.com) would be a signature moment in their recovery, three points against a team that has been a pleasant surprise this season. The Clarets have been ridiculously hard to break down ever since their return to the top flight, but this season they’ve also discovered a newfound cutting edge up front.

Slaven Bilic has deployed Javier Hernandez out wide in an attempt to fit both he and Andy Carroll into the lineup, and with the Hammers healthy after the break, they should have a full disposal of players to look to break down the hosts. However, with Burnley now able to possess the ball in greater spells, the weak West Ham defense could be at risk.


Can Alexis Sanchez put World Cup heartbreak behind him?

Like the United States, Chile missed out on the World Cup in heartbreaking fashion. The two-time defending Copa America champions were poor throughout qualification, and ultimately ended up just short of the finish line. Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez must put this disappointment behind him, lest it bleed into his club career.

Arsenal travels to Watford at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday (Watch live, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com), and like Burnley, the Hornets have improved mightily from last season to this. Most importantly, they’ve capitalized on playing teams down on their luck such as Bournemouth, Southampton, and Swansea, and could do the same if Sanchez and Arsenal do not bring their best mentality to Vicarage Road.


Will Ronald Koeman stave off the sharks?

Everton is 16th in the table, and if this season is truly setting up to be a relegation battle, their match this weekend could be a vital one. The Toffees travel to Falmer Stadium to take on Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. ET (Watch live, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) with the Seagulls sitting just two spots above them in the table, with both sides sitting on seven points.

If Ronald Koeman is to keep Everton floating above the relegation sharks, he must win this match. Any dropped points on the road at a newly promoted team would only serve to leak even more water into an already listing ship.

2018 World Cup Power Rankings – 9 months B.W.C.

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After the opening release of our 2018 World Cup power rankings, much has changed. Countries have been eliminated in heartbreaking fashion, while other teams assert their dominance over their federations.

All the spots have been decided except for the UEFA playoffs and the inter-continential playoffs, which leave just a few spots to be determined.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-WrightNicholas MendolaKyle BonnMatt ReedDan Karell and Andy Edwards — there is a clear talent gap between the top 10 teams and the rest of the nations. Meanwhile, there is a disagreement over what country is the most powerful in the world.

Germany has garnered the top spot, but it wasn’t by a lot. Brazil is right on their heels for the favorite heading into next year’s tournament, even dethroning the reigning World Champions on some lists. Overall, Europe claims four of the top five spots, South American teams find four countries in the top 10. Italy is the most iconic team to have fallen, now uncertain to make the tournament after finding itself in the UEFA playoffs thanks to its tough group.

Three teams who did not appear in last month’s edition find themselves with places at the table in Serbia, Iceland, and Croatia, while seven teams on the list were left off at least one panelist’s list, leaving uncertainty in the lower half of the table. Where do you think these countries fall, who was slighted, who is overrated, and who should have made the list?

Team

Points

Best

Worst

1 (1)

Germany

118

1

2

2 (2)

Brazil

115

1

3

3 (3)

France

107

2

4

4 (4)

Spain

98

3

6

5 (5)

Belgium

95

3

7

6 (9)

Uruguay

84

5

9

7 (8)

Portugal

83

4

10

8 (5)

Argentina

81

5

11

9 (6)

Colombia

70

7

16

10 (12)

Mexico

59

10

12

11 (13)

England

53

7

15

12 (20)

Poland

47

11

17

13 (7)

Italy

43

9

18

14 (NR)

Serbia

37

9

NR

15 (NR)

Iceland

33

9

NR

16 (17)

Japan

28

13

NR

17 (10)

Switzerland

24

12

NR

18 (14)

Nigeria

21

16

NR

19 (16)

Costa Rica

19

14

NR

20 (NR)

Croatia

14

14

NR

Michael Bradley should concede USMNT captaincy after World Cup debacle

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After the United States missed qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, there’s been plenty of talk regarding who to blame, who should resign, and who should take over at key areas in management of the organization.

What there hasn’t been as much of is responsibility given to – or taken by – players who were on the field at the time of the disaster. There has been little from players, aside from their postgame media responsibilities, which admittedly couldn’t have been easy.

And there’s been little in terms of deserved criticism for failing to deliver on so many occasions.

Jozy Altidore posted an apology on social media, saying “I’m so sorry we let you down.” Omar Gonzalez told media it was “one of the worst days of my life.” Tim Howard spoke about how teams sit back and defend against an ever-frustrated Stars & Stripes.

[ MORE: Who should you support at the 2018 World Cup? ]

One player who has received plenty of criticism in the years since the 2014 World Cup is Michael Bradley. The United States captain has persevered through it all, but has been since unable to recapture his form leading up to that tournament, instead becoming a polarizing figure in the USMNT midfield. Ever-present, fans have never been able to agree on his best position, his most useful skill, or the merits of his place in the team. Yet he has continued to wear the captain’s armband as one of the most experienced players in the squad.

The time has come for him to relinquish that duty.

Following the debacle in Trinidad & Tobago, Michael Bradley’s ability to perform the duties befitting of a captain have waned to the point of deprivation. The U.S. performance in Couva was so devoid of inspiration, so lacking in effort, so bankrupt of industry that it can no longer be assumed that anyone in a position of leadership in US Soccer has the ability to motivate in any sense of the concept.

The primary duties of a captain involve being a leader for the rest of the squad. Being a leader includes providing the team with the inspiration to succeed and having a mastery of soccer comprehension to marshall the troops on the field at times when the manager is either unable to or incapable of, such as when time is short and the players need to take it upon themselves to push forward and put the opponent under pressure.

While Bradley has a resume stuffed with successes as national team captain, judging by the performance not only across the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying landcsape, but even just focused solely on the game Tuesday night. The shocking, stunning, and infuriating lack of effort as the clock ticked towards impending doom was so unbelievable, so outrageously mind-boggling that it can only be concluded that Bradley is no longer capable of rallying the troops in times of need. Because if he can’t get himself and his team to play at 110% with the World Cup on the line, what other motivation could one possibly conjure up to provide a spark?

But don’t take my word for it…

Even Peter Vermes, new (slight) favorite to take over as USMNT manager, conceded starkly that the team “didn’t have the intensity, didn’t have the desire, the hunger, the fight” required to earn an admittedly straightforward result.

Sure, some of that – no, much of that – lies at the feet of the national team manager Bruce Arena, who failed to motivate his players enough to even earn a point against an inferior opponent. But Bruce has (rightfully) received plenty of criticism from the media and fans, to the point where it’s generally assumed his short second stint as USMNT boss is all but over.

No, the players are just as culpable for the debacle sustained over the last two years, and Michael Bradley, as the man charged as the clubhouse leader by way of the little velcro wrap over his arm, should take the most symbolic fall. It’s just part of the job.

This is not to say Bradley’s role on the team is over, not by a longshot. He is still an important player to this group, and has a few years more in the tank as an international-caliber player. But only one player showed the desire, the hunger, the fight befitting of a national team captain the other night. Shockingly, that player is just 19 years old.

Christian Pulisic, the boy wonder from Borussia Dortmund, left his heart on the Ato Boldon Stadium field Tuesday night. He tried time and time again to not just do the work himself, but to rally the troops to join him in his one-man charge to the World Cup. Nobody joined him in the cause, but that didn’t stop the attacker from giving the game his all. While Bradley was distributing square passes and barely jogging to retrieve the ball for a corner with seconds left, Pulisic ran circles around the Soca Warriors midfield and charged at the opposing back line, leaving his emotions on his sleeve.

I know it’s wild, I know it’s unprecedented, and I know it’s radical, but there’s only one man who walked the walk of a captain on Tuesday night, and that was Christian Pulisic. And that’s why the 19-year-old should be given the armband with immediate effect. The FIFA Golden Boy candidate isn’t just the best player on the team, he’s the biggest leader by example. It would probably cause a ripple or two in the locker room, at the least, but worldwide respect for his game has already been expressed, and with years until the next World Cup qualifying campaign, Pulisic would have time to not only grow into the role but earn the respect and understanding of his peers. Why not give it straight to him?

The aftermath of the 2018 World Cup failures in the United States will likely claim many scalps, and Michael Bradley should be one of them.

“That’s just reality. That’s on us.” Bradley’s own words from immediately after the United States missed its first World Cup since 1986.