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Jorge Sampaoli is this World Cup’s biggest loser so far

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The World Cup is all about moments – moments of triumph, moments of heartbreak, moments of relief and weight lifted. On Tuesday night in Saint Petersburg, as Argentina secured a knockout round spot with a thrilling win over Nigeria, one moment stood above them all.

Not Lionel Messi’s first 2018 World Cup strike, a masterpiece of movement and high-speed ball control woven by the world’s most brilliant goal craftsman. Not Marcos Rojo’s winner, a life-changing howitzer launched from the most unlikely right boot.

No, the lasting image was beleaguered Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli heading down the tunnel alone immediately after the final whistle, leaving his players to celebrate the triumph without him on the field.

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His disappearance was beautifully symbolic of his World Cup performance leading the tournament’s most disappointing blue blood (that is, until Germany faceplanted its way to group stage elimination) considering he had hardly bothered to show up in the first place. Argentina is set to take on France in the knockout stage not because of Sampaoli, but in spite of him.

Chile’s 2015 Copa America knight errant has somehow become Argentina’s floundering jester with absurd lineup choices and tactical experiments that would make even Jurgen Klinsmann cock his head in confusion. Sampaoli has proven so clueless at the helm that a group of senior Argentine players even reportedly attempted a full-on coup, desperately pleading with FA chairman Claudio Tapia not for Sampaoli’s dismissal, but simply for control of the starting lineup. That reportedly fell short, but it proved to the world the former Sevilla boss is on an island.

Lionel Messi jumps on the back of Marcos Rojo after the defender scored a late winner against Nigeria to send Argentina through to the knockout round (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images).

The biggest and most glaring issue for Sampaoli’s squad selections have been the midfield, where he has proven utterly lost. In Argentina’s opening game against Iceland, Sampaoli started international veteran Javier Mascherano alongside fellow deep-lying midfielder Lucas Biglia in a central midfield pivot that proved redundant, leaving Lionel Messi on an island further up the field. With Manuel Lanzini injured in the buildup to the tournament, Sampaoli turned to little-known Independente playmaker Maximiliano Meza on the wing opposite perpetual international dud Angel Di Maria, leaving Messi completely isolated with the creative load on his shoulders. Meanwhile, electric Juventus striker Paulo Dybala, passing wizard Ever Banega, and midfield link Giovani Lo Celso were left to contemplate their thoughts among the substitutes. Argentina dominated Iceland in every facet of the game, but, as they have on many occasions throughout the last few years, produced no end product.

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While that result was disappointing, it provided Sampaoli with all the answers he needed to make changes for the better moving forward. 34-year-old Mascherano looked a step behind the play, and partnered with Biglia the midfield was static. Yet the boss failed to draw from the fountain, sprinting in the opposite direction completely. Instead of benching Mascherano (admittedly a bold move to make with a team leader) and introducing Lo Celso and Banega to patch the holes and give Messi some creative help, he threw common sense to the wind with the incomprehensible decision to press Croatia into oblivion.

Not only did Sampaoli’s tactics fail miserably, his team selection proved he learned nothing from the first 90 minutes. He left Mascherano in and paired him with Enzo Perez, another static midfield duo. He sat Di Maria and replaced him with an even more confusing wing pairing of Eduardo Salvio and Marcos Acuna. Instead of withdrawing Max Meza, he pushed him even higher up the pitch in a creative yet undefined role. He started a back three that included full-back Nicolas Tagliafico chosen over Roma standout and natural center-back Federico Fazio, who was ranked by Squawka as the 6th best defender in Serie A this past campaign. The result was a gloriously chaotic mess as Luka Modric carved Argentina to bits on the counter. Here’s the Sparknotes version:

(Dashboard stats from Opta via StatsZone app)

Lionel Messi was completely and utterly wasted. Arguably the world’s best player had one shot on goal, which was blocked. He completed two take-ons in the attacking third. He created two chances. Meanwhile, Croatia sliced Argentina’s midfield to pieces on the counter, as Mascherano again had a miserable showing and the rest of the players were too scattered to make a difference. Willy Caballero made another mistake in goal, and the makeshift back three was torn to shreds.

With Argentina staring down the barrel of group stage elimination, Sampaoli was given a vote of confidence from management and turned in another flop in a do-or-die scenario against Nigeria. The 58-year-old scrapped the back three and deployed Manchester United bruiser Marcos Rojo into central defense, again leaving Fazio on the bench. He organized a flat 4-3-3 with Mascherano behind two central midfielders, which admittedly was better than anything he flung onto the pitch in the previous two games. He gave Ever Banega a deserved start, but Mascherano again made a fool of himself on multiple occasions, complete with blood streaming down his face. He continued to utilize Perez, who put in a laughably useless shift on the wing with 25 of his 32 passes backward or square despite living on the same side as Messi. Di Maria came back into the team and was again invisible. Sampaoli handed perennial punchline Gonzalo Higuain the start up front in favor of the insubordinate Sergio Aguero, and he did what he’s come to do best – send one to the moon in a huge moment down the stretch. All this while Dybala, Lo Celso, and Christian Pavon rotted on the bench, while Mauro Icardi laughed himself silly on the couch at home.

Nobody has seen their stock plummet quite like Jorge Sampaoli this World Cup. In a tournament full of moments – ones on the biggest stage that shape our image of players and coaches more than any others in the game – Sampaoli has managed to dismantle his reputation from Copa America hero to World Cup goat. No, this Argentina team isn’t very good, but it certainly isn’t this grotesque.

Messi ended up on the shoulders of Rojo after the defender’s magical moment against Nigeria, and he hugged every teammate and staff member on the pitch after the final whistle. Truthfully, it should have been the other way around, because the magical maestro has willed his team to the knockout stage despite the repeated failures of his manager, and that truly is a feat worthy of recognition. Jogi Löw certainly made mistakes with Germany en route to their massive failure, but it also felt as if he still possessed a talented roster that simply didn’t gel. Argentina – unlike Germany – is still kicking this summer, but because of the boss; they’re still around in spite of him.

LAFC’s Adama Diomande voluntarily enters MLS’s health program

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Los Angeles FC forward Adama Diomande has entered Major League Soccer’s substance abuse and behavioral health program.

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MLS announced Diomande’s voluntary decision Friday.

Diomande won’t play for LAFC at least until the program’s doctors complete their evaluation and he is cleared by program officials.

The 29-year-old Norwegian scorer has eight goals and seven assists in 25 appearances this season, including 15 starts. He has played a valuable complementary offensive role alongside MLS scoring leader Carlos Vela.

[ MORE: Report: Netherlands FA to meet with Sergiño Dest ]

Diomande is in his second MLS season after joining LAFC from Hull City. He also previously played under LAFC coach Bob Bradley in Norway.

LAFC (19-4-7) has clinched the Western Conference title, and it leads the overall MLS table by seven points despite a four-game winless streak.

Premier League Preview: Newcastle v. Brighton

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  • Early-season relegation battlers meet on Saturday
  • 18th-place Newcastle to host 16th-place Brighton
  • Brighton won at Newcastle, drew at home last season

Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion, a pair of Premier League sides with just two wins from the first five weeks of the season between them, will meet at St. James’ Park on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) for what could prove to be a retrospective relegation six-pointer when May rolls around.

Each side replaced its manager — Steve Bruce for Rafa Benitez at Newcastle; Graham Potter for Chris Hughton at Bright — in the summer and neither of the new bosses has had a particularly enjoyable start to the 2019-20 campaign. Brighton won on the opening day of the season, but have taken just two points from the following four games. Newcastle lost their first two games, won their third, and have drawn and lost again since. It’s the kind of form that’ll see both sides stuck in the high-teens of the PL table if they don’t find their footing in the coming weeks.

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Things are particularly worrying for Newcastle, who didn’t they’d be without Benitez until the end of June and didn’t appoint Bruce until mid-July. Key players had already left the club and reinforcements for few and far between. Forward Joelinton joined for $50 million and is one of four players with a single goal scored thus far.

Last week was nearly fruitful for the Seagulls, until the conceded a stoppage-time equalizer and settle for a point at home against Burnley. Summer signing Neal Maupay bagged his second goal for Brighton earlier in the game, giving Potter a potential trump card over a handful of other relegation-threatened sides without a consistent goalscorer.

Injuries/suspensions

Newcastle: OUT – Matt Ritchie (ankle), Florian Lejeune (knee), Dwight Gayle (calf); QUESTIONABLE – DeAndre Yedlin (groin)

Brighton: OUT – Leandro Trossard (groin), Jose Izquierdo (knee), Ezequiel Schelotto (knee)


Projected lineups

Newcastle: Dubravka – Krafth, Schar, Lascelles, Dummett, Willems – Almiron, Hayden, Shelvey, Atsu – Joelinton

Brighton: Ryan – Duffy, Dunk, Webster – March, Stephens, Propper, Burn – Gross, Maupay, Murray


What they’re saying

Joelinton, on Andy Carroll: “It’s always great to have experienced players in the group, and he’s one of them. He can help the club, he can help the young players. Andy Carroll has scored a lot of goals in the Premier League, and it’s great to be playing alongside him. He’s a calm guy. I still haven’t spoken to him a lot because my English isn’t great! But every day he’s trying to help. He’ll help me before the games, he’ll give me positional advice and suggest what I’ve done both good and bad.”

Graham Potter, on the trip to Newcastle: “Newcastle away is a tough game just like all the others. We don’t target particular matches — it’s about what we need to do to get a positive result. They have an experienced manager who I came across last year and he’s someone I have a lot of respect for. They have good quality players and we know it can be a hostile environment, it’s a big club and we know we have to play well to get something.  Steve has a lot of games under his belt – he’s had a lot of success and he’ll understand the challenge that lies ahead.


Prediction

Newcastle haven’t scored multiple goals in a game yet this season, and they’ve conceded twice as many as they’ve scored (four). It’s hard to trust them to be anything resembling consistent from game to game. It wouldn’t be surprising if they battled to a boring 0-0 draw, or conceding three times before halftime. It’ll probably be closer to the former, a 1-1 stalemate.

AC Milan announces internal anti-racism task force

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MILAN (AP) AC Milan has announced it will establish an internal task force to address racism in Italian football.

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The club says the task force will be supported by “an external consultancy” and “develop a program of activities to increase awareness, monitor and address racist behavior on social media and in the stadium, and drive the adoption of global best practices on diversity and inclusion.”

The move comes after reports of racist chants directed at Milan midfielder Franck Kessie, who is black, during a match at Hellas Verona last weekend.

Milan says the anti-racism initiative will be launched during Saturday’s derby against Inter Milan.

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Inter striker Romelu Lukaku was subjected to racist chants in a match at Cagliari this month.

Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis, who is South African, says: “Italian football needs to wake up and take a strong stance against racist behaviors. AC Milan will take a leadership position on this issue. . We believe that we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to address this issue.”

Slow start dooms Southampton again: ‘We lost the game in first half’

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Slow starts are, ironically, quickly becoming the story of Southampton’s Premier League season. It happened again on Friday, resulting in a 3-1 home defeat to Bournemouth in the Premier League‘s budding south coast rivalry

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Through six games, Saints have conceded the first goal four times. In those four games, they have taken just one point. When scoring the game’s first goal, they have two wins and two clean sheets.

It would appear that Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s side is set up to play one way, and one way only. Speaking after Friday’s defeat, Hasenhuttl lamented his side’s slow start, conceding that the game was all but lost when they fell 2-0 behind in the 35 minutes — quotes from the BBC:

“The finish was not important anymore. If you lose 2-1 or 3-1 it does not make too much difference. We lost the game in the first half.

“In the second half, we were sharp. Had about 26 shots to six from Bournemouth but the most important stat is the goals. They scored three, we scored once.

“We weren’t aggressive enough and too easy in the first half. It is not easy to be 1-0 down after 10 minutes. We had a lot of blocked shots and misses near the post. It was a good performance in the second half but without a result.

“For the second goal was had a lot of players in our attacking box so it was not easy to defend.

“We showed a good reaction because we knew we needed to be brave. We changed our shape and were aggressive for the second ball. It gave us 64% possession and we had a lot of shots. Maybe we didn’t deserve to take something because of our first half.”

Southampton’s next chance to start a game quickly will come in an away bout with Tottenham Hotspur next Saturday.