Defenses be damned, Messi keeps doing the impossible

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No sport stifles the individual more than world-class soccer. In baseball, you can intentionally walk a hitter, in football you can double-team a great receiver or pass rusher, in basketball and hockey you can tilt your defense toward the other team’s star. But only in soccer can you dedicate two or three players to surround a player more or less every minute of the game. It would be like two defenders following that receiver into the huddle and on to the bench.

Only in soccer can you, with enough dedication, make a great player disappear.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi has not scored a goal since the World Cup knockout round began. Teams playing Argentina have tilted the entire axis of their defenses to stop him from being a factor. He hardly seemed to touch the ball at all in Argentina’s penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands. He had one semi-dangerous free kick, one penalty-kick goal, a couple of curtailed runs and two or three interesting passes … but mostly he was silenced by a concerted Dutch effort.

On Sunday, Germany figures to defend Messi with more or less the same intensity and focus. Maybe more. Germany already made the great Cristiano Ronaldo disappear in its 4-0 battering of Portugal back in group play. German teams in the World Cup have long displayed the discipline and will to stifle a single player, no matter how great. This includes the man Messi has most often been compared with, his countryman, Diego Maradona. In 1990, West Germany beat Argentina 1-0 –- Argentina became the first team to not score in a World Cup final –- and Maradona was nowhere to be found.

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But, if you think about the sport, the amazing part is not that teams are able to take out one great player with a concerted effort. The amazing part is that great players EVER break through. The fact that Lionel Messi, four-time World Player of the Year, still does magical things with regularity, even when teams have designed entire game plans to keep him from even touching the ball, is mind-blowing. This, I think, is what makes him the most fascinating athlete in the world to watch.

In South Africa, at the World Cup four years ago, a player told me that if teams tried to defend Messi the way they defend most players, he would score three or four goals every game. This is because no player in the world – not even Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar – can match Messi’s absurd combination of balance, speed, control, power and imagination. Well, no one in any sport can. He is an incredible blend of familiar athletes from other sports -– he cuts and dodges like Barry Sanders, sees the field like Peyton Manning, passes like Sidney Crosby, maintains his balance like LeBron James. When he dribbles forward, the ball seems to stick to his feet, as if attached by Velcro, and with moves so subtle they are invisible at real speed, he makes defenders fall down.

Most of all, though, he is always prepared for the opportunity. This is the most extraordinary part of Messi to me. A soccer match is 90 minutes, and for most of those 90 minutes he is uninvolved. The other team is on the attack. He is being watched closely by three men. He must stand back to keep his defenders away from a teammate. You would expect Messi to be frustrated by this. There’s the classic story of Wilt Chamberlain leaving Kansas to go play for the Harlem Globetrotters. When asked why, he said: “I was tired of being guarded by four guys.”

[PST: If Argentina wins World Cup, will Messi be considered among best ever?]

But Messi does not get frustrated. A handful of times a game -– sometimes one or two times, sometimes five or six -– there is the slightest opening. The opponent blinks. A bad pass leads to a break. A defender slips. There is a tiny loss of concentration. And Messi strikes. In this way, he is not like any of those athletes above -– Barry Sanders would get 25 or 30 carries, Peyton Manning 40 or 50 passes, Crosby and James will have plenty of rushes up the ice and court.

No, in these moments, he’s more like James Bond, surrounded by henchmen, attached to a bomb, dangling over a water tank with sharks. When the moment is right, he has to do something extraordinary because he won’t get a second chance. In the 90th minute against Iran, scoreless tie, Messi gets the ball in a little bit of space, dribbles it to his left foot, unleashes a ridiculous 25-yard strike into the left-corner of the goal. In extra time against Switzerland, with the tournament on the line, Messi breaks through a defense that had mostly quieted him, draws everyone toward him, and drops off a pass to Angel di Maria, who scores the game-winner.

It is often in the later stages of the game, when players get tired and their concentration wanes just a little, that Messi gets his one good chance to do something extraordinary. And, more than anyone else perhaps since Maradona, he takes that chance and does something extraordinary.

The stories coming into the final seem to revolve around a simple question: If Messi leads Argentina to victory over Germany, will he have staked his claim as the greatest player ever? This has inspired long think pieces in various newspapers around the world as people remember Pelé and Maradona and Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer and so on. It has sparked people like Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho to weigh in (Mourinho says Messi does not need to win the World Cup to have his place among the greatest ever, but either way he is not THE greatest ever).

And that’s a fun one, but the real question is this: Can Messi really lead Argentina against a German side that seems much deeper and better? Will Germany give him even the slightest chance to do something wonderful Sunday? No team can stop Kevin Durant from scoring a basket or Tom Brady from completing a pass or Alex Ovechkin from taking his shots. But soccer is different. German coach Joachim Low has reportedly developed a secret plan to deal with Messi, though I suspect it will look a lot like everyone else’s secret plan: Make him invisible. It will work for most of the game because that’s the sport.

But will there be a chance, two chances, three chances for Lionel Messi to get the ball in a tiny patch of field, slip by one defender, power through another, dribble the ball close like it is on a short leash, crack a shot toward an open corner or flip it to a wide-open teammate only a half-step onside? This is at the heart of Lionel Messi’s brilliance. It is impossible for one person to score a goal when 11 men are determined to stop him. Impossible. Somehow Messi does it all the time.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski.

Premier League transfer needs: Who needs what?

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Premier League transfer needs: The summer transfer window closes on Oct. 5 at. 6pm ET and all 20 Premier League clubs will be doing plenty of business between now and then.

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Below we take a look at who needs what in the final days of the window, as managers, technical directors and owners will be working tirelessly to get deals over the line to bring players in and send them out.

Okay, here are the Premier League transfer needs ahead of the final days of the window.


Big boys scrambling late in the transfer window

Manchester United set to make moves: They need a left back and center back and want to add an extra attacking option too. It will be a busy week for Ed Woodward and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and United’s poor start to the season will have brought a new sense of urgency. Alex Telles could arrive at left back, while Edinson Cavani, Luka Jovic and Ismaila Sarr have all been linked. Then, of course, there is Jadon Sancho. Reports state Man United will make a late bid for him, but it seems more in desperation than anything else.

Chelsea need one more center back, but will they sign Declan Rice from West Ham? Probably not. That could be a problem for Frank Lampard who has upgraded his attacking options, goalkeeper and left back but Thiago Silva struggled on his Premier League debut and a host of center backs could leave Chelsea in the next few days. Expect more outs than ins at Stamford Bridge after a big summer of spending.

Jadon Sancho to Man United
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As for Arsenal, they are pushing hard to sign a new central midfielder as they haven’t given up on a move for Atletico Madrid holding midfielder Thomas Partey. That seems like a long shot, but there’s chances of signing Houssem Aouar from Lyon seem to be improving. Aouar, 22, is within their price range and is the silky central midfielder that Mikel Arteta needs to kick his project on.

Jose Mourinho and Tottenham are looking to add a few players late in the window after a busy summer in the transfer window. After adding Gareth Bale, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Matt Doherty and Sergio Reguilon, it appears that they want to sign one more forward to try and give Kane a rest as Heung-min Son has now gone down with a serious injury too. Milik to come in? Maybe one more center back too? They need both to be top four challengers.

As for Liverpool and Manchester City, it seems like their business is done. Liverpool signed Thiago Alcantara and Diogo Jota to boost their already stellar squad, while Man City added two center backs in Nathan Ake and Ruben Dias to strengthen Pep Guardiola’s defensive options. City may make a late move for another attacking option due to injuries to Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus.


Teams who have started well set to double down?

Everton have won three from three to start the season and they may look to add one more key defensive signing. Former loanee Kurt Zouma could be available from Chelsea and he would boost Carlo Ancelotti’s center back options. Everton have finally bought very well this summer.

Leicester City have been linked with signing James Tarkwoski from Burnley and Wesley Fofana from Saint-Etienne as they hope to add a new center back and Brendan Rodgers’ side will need a big squad as they’re also in the Europa League this season.

Leeds United have been linked with a move for Manchester United winger Daniel James and Marcelo Bielsa wants to add one more piece of quality after a very good start to life back in the top-flight.


Relegation strugglers need to do deals

West Ham are looking to add a center back with Tarkowski a key target, while the Hammers will want to add a few extra options in defense too. Going forward they look fine and as long as they keep Declan Rice, they’re set in midfield.

Burnley are looking to add a creative player (Harry Wilson) and a center back (Steve Cook) after a tough start to the season as they were hit hard by injuries.

Fulham will be busy in the window as they search for center backs, while Sheffield United are said to be pushing hard to sign Rhian Brewster as they haven’t scored a goal in their three opening games.


Eyes on the rest of the Premier League transfer needs…

Brighton, Wolves, Aston Villa and Newcastle United did plenty of business early in the window, so too did West Brom, as they all look set.

A few teams to keep an eye on are Crystal Palace and Southampton who are both on the hunt for a few additions. Palace want another forward option as they could also challenge for Brewster, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a loan option for both Palace and Saints. Southampton want a new central midfield and Ralph Hasenhuttl has said he wants three new additions late in the window. Watch out for them.

Transfer news: Man United move for Cavani, Jovic; Sancho update

Jadon Sancho to Man United
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Cavani to Manchester United? Jovic to Manchester United? Sancho to Manchester United?

Everyone to Manchester United!

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The latest transfer news surrounds Manchester United and with just a few days to go in the summer window it seems like Ed Woodward and Co. are perhaps panicking a little.

A report from Gianluca Di Marzio in Italy states that Man United have offered a deal to experienced striker Edinson Cavani, who is currently a free agent after leaving PSG.

The same outlet also states that Man United have made an offer to take Luka Jovic on loan from Real Madrid as they know that Odion Igahlo will be going back to his parent club Shanghai Shenhua in January when his loan is up.

Add to those two rumors that Manchester United want to sign Ismaila Sarr from Watford as a back up to Jadon Sancho, plus reports that the Red Devils want to make one final push for Sancho before the window shuts next week, and we have an absolute mess.

Cavani and Jovic make sense for short-term solutions, but Man United don’t need to add more attacking players. They need a new left back and center back to make their squad stronger, and probably a new holding midfielder too.

With Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial up top, they are set for attackers but Solskjaer doesn’t think so. Cavani to Manchester United would be a good back-up option and at 33 he could pass on plenty of tips to Rashford, Martial and Greenwood.


Jadon Sancho to Manchester United update

When it comes to Sancho, an update of sorts has arrived.

Borussia Dortmund captain Marco Reus has poured cold water on reports that Sancho could be heading to Man United in the final days of this transfer window.

“For us players that was great news. We all were happy that he will be with us for one more year because he delivers assists and goals, so we get points,” Reus said. “If he gets as big as (Lionel) Messi or Ronaldo, we will see. He needs time, experience and it will be important how he manages the times when things don’t go so well. But he has the confidence and the quality.”

So, that’s that then? Sancho hasn’t travelled with Dortmund for the Super Cup in Munich against Bayern Munich due to a respiratory problem but he has tested negative for COVID-19.

Dortmund set a deadline of August 10 for Man United to put their money where their mouth was and pay for Sancho. But United don’t want to pay $140 million for Sancho and it appears he will now be at Dortmund for at least another 12 months.

Should Man United just wait until then? Can they manage with their current attacking crop? Yes and yes. But they probably won’t.

Fulham boss Parker upset after owner Khan apologized

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Fulham did not play well in their 3-0 defeat at home against Aston Villa and they’ve now lost all three of their Premier League games since being promoted.

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Add to that the fact they’ve conceded 10 goals and Scott Parker has a big job on his hands to keep Fulham in the Premier League.

It’s safe to say the Fulham manager also didn’t appreciate the son of owner Shahid Khan apologizing to fans for the performance on social media, as he also repeated that he’s been pushing to sign new defenders for several weeks.

Tony Khan — who is the co-owner, vice chairman and director of football operations at Fulham — detailed their search for a new center back, responded to fans comments on Twitter and said the display against Villa wasn’t good enough.

“I apologize to Fulham FC supporters for our performance tonight. We’ve looked to add centre-backs since Wembley, I’m sorry we haven’t yet as two got COVID and we lost a free we thought was close and had another issue with a fourth CB. I promise players in and better efforts from this squad,” Khan said in a Tweet after full time. “I should and will apologize repeatedly for that performance. I’m sorry everybody. We all need to do a better job. Everyone at the club for the past year worked really hard to get the team up and now we need to work significantly harder to stay up. I promise better efforts than today.”

Safe to say that Parker didn’t appreciate that statement as he spoke to the media ahead of Fulham’s League Cup last 16 game against Brentford.

“I think obviously I said it last night. People have the platform. You own a football club, you can decide how you want to communicate or send a message out. It’s not something I agree with, it’s not helpful from that sense but like I said that’s down to the owner and how he sees it,” Parker said. “There’s one thing that I’m disappointed with and that’s how he’s actually apologizing for the performance and that is something that I don’t agree with and he shouldn’t have. The performance last night was a good performance which was a group of players who have done everything they can, worked tirelessly from the first minute to the 95th. From 3-0 down they were still trying work as much as they can to try and get us back in the game and for that I don’t agree with him.”

This is a double-edged sword.

Many fans will appreciated Khan for responding to complaints publicly and being open and transparent. On the other hand, players and coaching staff at Fulham will probably be slightly bemused that this level of information was shared in a public forum.

Khan, who oversees the day-to-day running of Fulham, has taken a very different approach to transfers than when Fulham were promoted two seasons ago and spent big and were instantly relegated from the Premier League during the 2018-19 season.

It will be intriguing to see if Fulham splash the cash in a big way to back Parker in the final days of the window because their defensive performances suggest they will be relegated straight back to the Championship. It is early days in the Premier League season but Fulham are already having a bit of a meltdown.

Transfer news: Sarr to Manchester United

Ismaila Sarr to Manchester United
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Ismaila Sarr to Manchester United is the latest back-up option for Jadon Sancho.

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According to the Daily Mail, Ismaila Sarr to Manchester United is emerging as their best possible option this summer as negotiations with Borussia Dortmund aren’t going well.

Sarr would be a good alternative, but he is valued at over $57 million by Watford. Surely spending that kind of cash just for the sake of it rather than waiting an extra 6-12 months for Sancho is a mistake?

The Watford and Senegal winger, 22, was one of the only positives to come from the Hornets’ relegation from the Premier League last season and was chased by Liverpool earlier this summer before they signed Diogo Jota instead.

After a slow start to life in England after his arrival from Ligue 1 side Rennes, Sarr scored twice in Watford’s shock 3-0 win over Liverpool and added another in a shock win against Man United, as he netted six goals and grabbed four assists in total.

Not bad for his first season in the Premier League, but is he any better than Daniel James, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata as back-up options? Probably, but spending over $50 million to sign him seems more out of desperation than planning.

That’s no disrespect to Sarr, but it shows that Manchester United are perhaps getting a little nervy and anxious in the final days of the window. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has signed Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek this summer but United have missed out on Sergio Reguillon and Gareth Bale (who both went to Tottenham) and Thiago Alcantara who chose Liverpool instead.

Sancho is understandably their top target and Dortmund know that. They also know that selling Sancho this summer makes little sense as his transfer value is at its lowest and will rise to close to the $150 million they want for him when the market (hopefully) gets back to normal as the COVID-19 pandemic develops.

Sarr is a very good winger and in a team like Manchester United which will provide him with plenty of the ball out wide and on counter attacks he will slot in very nicely. But is he going to start ahead of Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford? No. He is a player who can be added to the rotation and add strength to the squad but what happens next summer if Man United do land Sancho?

There needs to be a better long-term transfer plan at Manchester United rather than just buying players each and every summer for the sake of it.