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.

Daniel Levy calls for all players, clubs to cut wages

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Tottenham chairman has called for Premier League players and staff to take wage cuts to help clubs cope with the suspension during the coronavirus pandemic.

Levy revealed 550 off-pitch staff at Tottenham have taken pay cuts as he pointed to the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich as their players and officials had taken wage cuts in order to make sure every individual at the club was paid and costs did not spiral out of control during the suspension of leagues.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Levy confirmed that the “club’s operations have effectively ceased” and “has an annual cost base running into hundreds of millions of pounds” before adding that clubs and players should do their part as clubs, leagues and players’ unions meet on Wednesday in England to work out a way forward.

“We hope the current discussions between the Premier League, PFA and LMA will result in players and coaches doing their bit for the football eco system,” Levy said.

Tottenham’s chairman also explained exactly what Spurs are doing to help them deal with the new financial reality all soccer clubs are facing, as the UK government is paying 80 percent of wages of staff who have been furloughed (basically told they still have a job but aren’t needed right now) by their employers.

“We have seen some of the biggest clubs in the world such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus take steps to reduce their costs. Yesterday, having already taken steps to reduce costs, we ourselves made the difficult decision – in order to protect jobs – to reduce the remuneration of all 550 non-playing directors and employees for April and May by 20 per cent utilising, where appropriate, the Government’s furlough scheme. We shall continue to review this position,” Levy added.

Soccer will of course have to adjust to its new reality and the longer the suspension goes on, tougher decisions will have to be made about players and staff taking significant pay cuts to help keep costs down with no matchday revenue coming in. Tottenham’s stadium is being used to help prepare food for vulnerable people in the local and it has been offered to the NHS to be used any way it can help.

Plenty of clubs across the Premier League have vowed to pay temporary staff used on matchdays but many are making use of government help with wages and many are doing plenty for their local communities too. These are unprecedented times and players and clubs are stepping up to make sure the most vulnerable are looked after.

Benzema: ‘I’m F1’ quality compared to ‘go-kart’ Giroud

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It would appear that Karim Benzema lives for exactly two things in life: scoring goals and creating/participating in very public drama.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Benzema, who hasn’t feature for France’s national team since he was allegedly involved in a scandal to blackmail teammate Mathieu Valbuena with a sex tape in 2015, slammed compatriot forward Olivier Giroud as the “go-karting” alternative to his own “F1” quality.

His main gripe with Giroud doesn’t appear to actually be with the player himself, but the fact the two get compared to one another so frequently. In Benzema’s absence from Les Bleus, Giroud has been the main beneficiary, leading many to wonder if the team could have reached greater heights with Benzmea in the team instead — quotes from Sky Sports:

“You shouldn’t confuse F1 and go karting and that’s me being kind. On to the next topic. I’m not talking about him [Giroud] anymore. I just know that I’m F1.

“He has his career, he does what he wants and scores the goals that he wants to score. He’s in his corner and I’m in mine, I’m not thinking about him. If we’re talking about playing style, his suits France well.

“It’s good because there are fast players like (Kylian) Mbappe and (Antoine) Griezmann who play out wide or feed off the centre-forward. When Giroud is up front, he’s a handful for defenses, which gives the other two plenty of space to show what they can do.

“He occupies defenders and it works. It might not be brilliant to watch and you won’t say, ‘Wow, that was incredible.’ Does everyone like that style of play? I don’t know, but it suits France well.”

Giroud: 39 goals (third-highest) in 97 appearances for France. Benzema: 27 goals in 81 appearances.

Guardiola: ‘We will come back stronger, kinder … and a bit fatter’

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Through all of the innumerable challenges and tragedies the world is currently facing during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola is doing his best to not only help the fight back in his native Spain, but also give everyone a chance to smile and laugh at their own expense.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Guardiola, who last week donated $1.1 million to fight the virus in Catalonia, released a video message of encouragement and hope on Monday — encouraging everyone to stay inside, and hopeful of returning to a sense of normalcy in short order:

“We miss football. We miss the life that we had a few days ago but now is the time to listen, to follow our scientists, doctors and nurses.

“You are my football family and we are going to do everything possible to make you feel better. We’ll come back from this stronger, better, kinder … and a little bit fatter. Stay inside, stay safe.”

Germany’s UCL clubs pledge support for cash-strapped clubs

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DUSSELDORF, Germany — Four German soccer clubs have pledged a combined $21.9 million to support other teams struggling to stay afloat after games in the country were suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen will forgo $13.7 million in as-yet undistributed TV money and add another $8.2 million from their own funds. All four clubs played in the Champions League this season, giving them extra income.

The German Football League, which oversees the top two divisions, will decide how the money is distributed. The league has previously said it fears many clubs could face financial collapse if games can’t resume.

“In these difficult times, it’s important that the stronger shoulders support the weaker shoulders,” Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said on Thursday.

It’s the latest in a string of gestures to help those in need in German soccer. Players at clubs including Bayern, Borussia Monchengladbach and second-tier Karlsruhe have agreed to voluntary pay cuts to help other staff.

[ MORE: Tottenham offer stadium to help with coronavirus effort ]

Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said clubs had a responsibility to keep other teams running in what could be a long period without income from ticket sales and sponsors.

“We have always said that we would show solidarity if clubs, through no fault of their own, should run into difficulties that they can no longer overcome themselves,” Watzke said in a statement.

“BVB is currently having a major impact on society through a wide range of initiatives. And naturally we are prepared to help out other professional football clubs if it is ultimately a matter of cushioning the financial effects of the pandemic.”