Messi, Ronaldo shootout leaves both men standing

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Before Sunday, the rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had been a media construct – a fabrication that helped create the kind of dramatic headlines that drive ratings and win page views. People who follow the game know this, but the debate — Ronaldo or Messi, Messie or Ronaldo — gave editors the justification. Even if they aren’t exactly Ali-Frazier, Magic-Bird rivals, their stature in world soccer makes discussion inevitable.

That discussion’s set for a new level after Sunday’s theatrics in Barcelona. The final score may say Barcelona and Real Madrid drew, 2-2, but the result everybody will be talking about is the battle of the stars: Lionel Messi 2, Cristiano Ronaldo 2.

It’s hard to believe in that in the 21 Clasicos since Ronaldo joined Real Madrid, this is the first time each icon’s scored twice in the same game. We were expecting matches like these when Real bought Ronaldo, but three years and 21 matches into the era, we finally have some perspective on how special and rare these games are going to be.

How often can they really happen? Even for Messi and Ronaldo, multi-goal games are uncommon, but for each to have one in the same Clasico? We shouldn’t have expected so much.

That’s what makes today’s match so amazing – both men with braces, in a Clasico, in a game where nobody else scored. It was just them, on their own, with complete responsibility for whatever their team was going to do. True, Karim Benzema and Pedro Rodríguez each found the woodwork, but when they didn’t it, it only reinforced the feeling: It was going to be Messi and Ronaldo or nobody for Spain’s Big Two.

But while Messi and Ronaldo may have dominated on the scoresheet, there were large stretches of play where neither mattered. For the first 30 minutes, Messi was practically shut out. Only a collapse from Real’s defense in the 31st minute brought him into the game, giving Messi a chance to pounce on a loose ball in Iker Casillas’s six-yard box. Before then, Barcelona couldn’t convert their dominance of possession into chances for their star.

And with that possession advantage, Ronaldo was left to collect dust on Real’s wing. Such is life in the Clasicos. When Barça holds the ball for 60, 65 percent of the time, all you can do is be patient and have faith. Wait for Sami Khedira or Xabi Alonso to win a ball, then burst. The rest of the time, Ronaldo stayed wide and on the left, forced to wait for whatever isolated chances Real could create.

Sunday, he only got two, but Ronaldo took them both. His first half opener came as Daniel Alves was drawn inside, allowing Karim Benzema to find him in the left of the penalty area. Later, Mesut Özil found him testing Barcelona’s trap. A left-footed blast on the first, a quick release on the second, and Ronaldo had his brace. Those were his only chances of the night.

Messi saw a lot more of the ball, but he had even fewer chances. The first goal came from chaos – pure luck and opportunism. The second was from a dead ball, Messi dipping a perfect ball behind the Real wall, into the right of Casillas’s goal from 24 yards out. Messi may have dictated play for the match’s final 35 minutes, but the scoring chances were still nearly impossible to find.

And while it may have been more fun to see each star get six, seven chances on goal, their efficiency somehow made the match more special. There was no hesitation, no waste. Each man had to convert the few chances he saw. After Ronaldo equalized in the 66th minute, you knew whoever got the next chance would win the match.

But it never came. The final chance fell to Pedro, who nailed the cross bar near full time.

Perhaps the draw only raises the stakes. The next time there’s a shootout (if there is a next time), both men will know. They’ll need to empty their chambers. If there’s going to be a winner, they’re going to have to take the shot.

Report: Newcastle’s Clark knocked out on Spanish dance floor

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A wild story out of Spain says an Englishman knocked Newcastle United defender Ciaran Clark unconscious at a night club.

[ MORE: Sampaoli defends Messi ]

Clark was on vacation in Spain, where he was spending time at Crystal’s Bar in Punta Ballena, Magaluf very early Sunday morning.

Clark and a man “in his 30s” got into an argument that saw the Irish defender knocked out, according to the BBC.

Clark was left unconscious and taken to hospital after an argument between him and the suspect broke out on the dance floor.

The 28-year-old suffered cuts and bruises to his face.

Clark, 28, scored twice in 20 Premier League appearances this season, his second at St. James’ Park.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 9 — Iceland’s next step, Brazilian bounce back?

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Brazil is one of the favorites of the 2018 World Cup, while Iceland is the smallest nation to qualify for the world’s biggest tournament.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

On Friday, both enter their second match days feeling quite different after 1-1 draws.

They won’t face each other, of course, but the contrast is striking nevertheless.

Brazil opens the day’s action when it squares off with Costa Rica, who fell to Serbia in the opener. For Serbia, a dark horse of the tournament, it will be a meeting with Switzerland.

Then there’s Iceland’s bid to climb into the Group D driver’s seat by knocking off Nigeria. A win from Iceland would make Lionel Messi and Argentina’s task of qualifying for the knockout rounds extremely unlikely.

Below is Friday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group D
Nigeria vs. Iceland: Volgograd, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group E
Brazil vs. Costa Rica: Saint Petersburg, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Serbia vs. Switzerland: Kaliningrad, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina

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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”