Preview: Netherlands’ turn to solve Messi, Argentina

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As a head coach, Carlos Queiroz’s reputation is mixed, albeit one that’s been bolstered at this World Cup. Though his team, Iran, failed to advance out of its group, the defensive performance it put in against Lionel Messi brought back memories of 2008. Then, as an assistant with Manchester United, the former Real Madrid boss helped implement a plan that kept the Barcelona star scoreless over two games in UEFA Champions League’s semifinal. Were it not for a long range, 91st minute goal in this summer, Queiroz would have solved Messi once more.

The key, it’s since come out, is space. Contest his first touch, and if you can’t win the ball, make sure he ends up moving away from goal. Don’t let him turn with the ball, pick up speed going at the defense, and have a chance to read his teammates’ runs. Don’t give Messi the space to be Messi.

For most teams that would be easier said than done – a tactic that would risk throwing the defense into turmoil as it tried to keep track of La Pulga (the Flea). Not so with the Netherlands. Instead, this is where Louis van Gaal’s team benefit from being grouped with Spain.

Against a team that plays so much like Messi’s Barcelona, van Gaal went with three central defenders, giving him a huge numerical advantage at the back. Yet instead of staying in place to mind Spanish striker Diego Costa, the likes of Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij, and even veteran Ron Vlaar took turns tracking attacking midfielder Andrés Iniesta into midfield.

They did the same with David Silva. When those two playmakers got the ball, often they were forced into playing negative pass, touching back to deep midfielders Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. When Iniesta and Silva were denied possession, Costa had to drop back from the defense to provide an outlet. Spain’s attack sputtered.

[ MORE : From 1974 to 2006: History of Argentina and the Netherlands at World Cups ]

Argentina and Spain are different teams, but as Alejandro Sabella’s become the latest coach to try to replicate Messi’s club form, the Albiceleste have continued to evolve toward Barcelona. As it concerns tomorrow’s game, that would mean Messi as the focal point, in a free role, planted behind one forward (Gonzalo Higuaín). Instead of the Dutch defense having to worry about two men (Iniesta and Silva), they may have the luxury of focusing on one.

The slow fade of Messi’s final critics

But oh, what a one. After two World Cups that gave detractors license to pick apart performances, Lionel Messi’s 2014 brilliance is undeniable. Never mind that he was only 19 at his first World Cup (Germany 2006) and actually very good, if short on goals, at his second (South Africa 2010).  A naive criticism had taken root, portraying a player who has 68 career UEFA Champions League goals as troubled by the World Cup’s occasion.

Title-minded
source: APThe Netherlands are two steps away from the country’s first world title, while Argentina, having claimed the crown in 1978 and 1986, are looking for their first win since the days of Diego Maradona:

Nation Titles
Brazil 5
Italy 4
Germany 3
Argentina 2
Uruguay 2
France 1
England 1
Spain 1

Four goals and one assist later, and Messi’s crafted a World Cup to make his doubters into fools. The idea that Messi, so great at Barcelona, somehow became an inferior player for his country never made sense. The want to look beyond a strong 2010 only confirmed that bias. Messi was always working against critics that were only interested in bottom lines, ignoring the fact that Argentina had often used him in different, sub-optimal roles. Now, between his raw production and his team’s semifinal run, he’s ruined his critics’ summer.

[ MORE: With Angel Di Maria out, what other options do Argentina have? ]
[ MORE: Robin van Persie could miss Netherlands’ World Cup semifinal vs. Argentina ]

Whether he can ruin the Netherlands’, too, may end up in his teammates’ hands. If the Dutch use Queiroz’s approach and focus on Messi, it will be up to Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia, Argentina’s two deep midfielders in the quarterfinals, to find others who can make a difference going forward. On one side, that will likely be Ezequiel Lavezzi, a player who can make Dutch markers pay with his ability to beat them one-on-one. On the other, it would be Enzo Pérez, Maxi Rodríguez, or Rodrigo Palacio. Regardless, Sabella will need a Plan B – some other way to find forward Gonzalo Higuaín, should Messi draw too much attention.

Send your hopes directly to Arjen

The one thing Mascherano and Biglia won’t be able to do, however, is leave their defense unprotected. Even though Robin van Persie, one of the Netherlands’ two main threats up top, looks doubtful for Wednesday’s game, the Dutch still have a weapon that’s been as dangerous as Messi. Thanks to three goals, one assist, and the constant threat he’s posed the Netherlands’ opposition, Arjen Robben’s put himself in contention for the Golden Ball.

With their new propensity to play long and direct — potentially drawing in an Argentine team that’s keeping 61 pct. possession — the Netherlands have gotten the most out of Robben, who also drew a game-winning penalty in the Round of 16 against Mexico. One of the fastest players in the world, the 30-year-old can win this game on his own Dutch if he’s allowed to challenge José Basanta, Ezequiel Garay, and Martín Demichelis. A worry coming into the tournament, Argentina’s defense will become a nightmare if Mascherano and Biglia can’t provide support.

In that way, van Persie’s absence may not be decisive. Same with Messi’s command, though the Dutch will certainly try to account for it. Instead, it may come down to Ángel di María, the versatile Argentina midfielder who tore his thigh in the Albiceleste’s quarterfinal. It may come down to Sergio Agüero, whose return to Sabella’s team will likely come at the expense of somebody who can help protect the defense. It may come down to tall the ways Argentina can augment Messi without compromising their ability to stop Robben.

If they can strike that balance, the Albiceleste will likely play for their third title. Else, the Dutch get a chance to claim their first, at the expense of the Germans.

Report: Six Barcelona board members quit, recommend new election

Barcelona
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Barcelona might be atop La Liga, but the behind the scenes atmosphere is ugly.

A day after reports that president Josep Maria Bartomeu asked four board members to leave the club, the quartet and two others have resigned and called for new leadership.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Marca translated the letter signed by Emili Rousaud, Enrique Tombas, Silvio Elias, Josep Pont, Maria Teixidor and Jordi Calsamiglia (Spanish report here). The first four were asked to leave, with Teixidor and Calsamiglia joining them.

That leaves the board at 13 members.

“We ask that once the results of the audit entrusted to PWC are presented, all responsible to be swept away with the eventual corresponding compensation.

“As a last service to our club, we recommend that as soon as circumstances allow it to call new elections to allow to direct the club, with all the ‘authority’ and in the best possible way in the face of the important challenges of the most immediate future.”

It’s been a terrible season for Barca off-the-field, and Bartomeu’s leadership simply must be questioned given the actions of him and some of the people under his watch. Former players and legends have spoken out against the club’s hierarchy, including Pep Guardiola.

The ouster of Ernesto Valverde was handled without much class, and director Eric Abidal threw the players under the bus for the managerial change. The club has also dealt with “Barcagate,” in which a contracted social media company was fired for posting Tweets against Barca’s players.

Both drew the ire of Lionel Messi, who can exercise a clause to leave the club this summer (though that seems unlikely). Messi also admitted he “sees weird things happening” after Bartomeu spoke to the players after “Barcagate.”

Messi also refuted Thursday rumors of a move to Inter Milan in a since-deleted IG post.

Bartomeu has been Barca’s president since January 2014, and the club has won the 2014/15 Champions League and four of five La Liga crowns during his full seasons in charge. There have, however, been a lot of misses in the transfer market.

It might get uglier before it gets better, but there isn’t too much room for worse.

Premier League March Madness: Handicapping the Final

Premier League March Madness
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There was a thriller when Wolves and Everton met at Goodison Park on Sept. 1, and we’re hoping for the online poll equivalent when our Premier League March Madness concludes on Friday.

Wolves already gave us one on Thursday, blowing a lead they held for most of the day to see a 50-50-to-the-vote deadlock before a sizeable win in extra time (30 minutes of added voting).

Everton had an interesting win of its own, destroying Merseyside Derby rivals Liverpool with more than 80 percent of the vote.

[ LIVE: March Madness PL hub ] 

Before we go any further, if you’re unfamiliar: To make sure you’re not missing out on either March Madness or the business end of the PL season, we’ve gone ahead and merged the two competitions. The March Madness Final Four and Championship game were due to take place this weekend in Atlanta but now you will be voting on Tottenham v. Arsenal instead of Duke v. Kansas.

Teams are seeded from 1-16 based on their current spot in the table, with Aston Villa winning the relegation playoffs on Monday to remain in the Premier League.

Road to the Final

Monday: Relegation semifinals, final – Aston Villa prevailed, Norwich, Bournemouth, Watford relegated
TuesdaySweet 16 results
WednesdayElite Eight
Thursday: Final Four
Friday: Championship game

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

The Toffees are the favorites here, having knocked off Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool.

But this will be the first time in the tournament where Everton won’t have the benefit of a club many other teams hate as the opposition.

Wolves’ extra time win over Sheffield United was a first real scare of the tournament, and the Molineux set will hope its extra time performance was a showing of what it will do when faced with elimination.

It’s difficult to choose against Everton here, even if the Anfield faithful will move to the side of the Wolves. We’ll call it 54-46 to the blue side of Liverpool.

RESULTS: Premier League March Madness Final Four

Premier League
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Everton has its first Merseyside Derby since 2010 thanks to the voters of ProSoccerTalk.

The Toffees’ 21-match run without a win over Liverpool “ended” Thursday in Premier League March Madness, the fusion of two of our favorite sporting competitions.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

We hinted at this win on Wednesday given the exits of all the Premier League giants besides Liverpool, as supporters of Manchester United, Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, and Chelsea might leap at the chance to take the Reds off any throne.

But to say we saw this margin? The Toffees didn’t just beat their rivals; Carlo Ancelotti’s men stomped the Reds into online oblivion.

So who will Everton meet in the final after knocking off Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool?

The winner of Sheffield United and Wolves came in nail-biting fashion, the two sides nearly as evenly-matched as their 1-1 draw at the Molineux on Dec 1.

Wolves led for much of the day but saw their lead slip to 50.4-49.6 with minutes left in voting.

At 6:30 p.m. ET, it was dead-even. 50-50.

So we extended voting to extra time, and Nuno Espirito Santo must’ve deployed a ridiculous substitute because Wolves ran away with the thing to the tune of 59.6-40.4. #Swing.

[ LIVE: March Madness PL hub ]

If you want to see the full game schedule, seedings and bracket, here is the post you need as the tournament will run all week long:

Monday: Relegation semifinals, final – Aston Villa prevailed, Norwich, Bournemouth, Watford relegated
TuesdaySweet 16 results
WednesdayElite Eight
Thursday: Final Four
Friday: Championship game

Much-chased Havertz reportedly prefers Bayern move

Kai Havertz
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The latest transfer gossip regarding rumor mill regular Kai Havertz pours a lot of cold water on the hopes of several Premier League giants.

Havertz, 20, has been linked with Liverpool, Manchester United, and Manchester City this season with his odds of leaving Bayer Leverkusen at an all-time high. He’s also been connected to Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham to cover most of the Top Six bases.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

But Sky Sports says the German playmaker is keen to stay in his home country and make a move to Bayern Munich, who has been linked with Havertz, Leroy Sane, and Timo Werner in a bid to revolutionize its UEFA Champions League credentials.

Havertz has 10 goals and eight assists in 34 matches this season after exploding for 20 and seven in 42 last year. He doesn’t turn 21 until June.

The youngster provides little defensively but averages 2.3 key passes and 2.3 dribbles per match in Bundesliga play while passing at a tidy 87 percent despite living in the danger areas.

Whoever gets Havertz has a gem on its hands, but perhaps the Premier League will amp up their interest and recruiting efforts after these reports (if they haven’t already).