Leo Messi

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World Cup, Group D preview: Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria

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Argentina: For whatever reason, be they Real Madrid fans or just sadists, many critics say the best player in the world just won’t be allowed his full lore unless Lionel Messi leads his team to a World Cup. Messi has played in two Copa America finals and a World Cup final, but some need him to win a tournament on his own regardless of deficiencies at the back or anywhere else on the pitch. Will he? READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

Iceland: The darlings of EURO 2016 have a remarkably difficult task ahead of them, being asked to again overachieve on a massive stage. READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Croatia: Loaded with talent and experience, the main rivals for the group title will see El Clasico rivals Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric again team up to take on the world. READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

Nigeria: Already celebrated for their unique green shirts, the Super Eagles will be led by a pair of young Premier League stars in Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi. Might they stun Argentina or Croatia? READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

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


Who’s going through: Argentina and Croatia

 [ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

Who’s going home: Nigeria and Iceland

Marquee match: Croatia versus Nigeria, Saturday in Kaliningrad

Top 5 players to watch
1) Lionel Messi — Argentina
2) Luka Modric — Croatia
3) Ivan Rakitic — Argentina
4) Wilfred Ndidi — Nigeria
5) Gonzalo Higuain — Argentina

Barcelona held by Las Palmas ahead of crucial Atletico match

AP Photo/Lucas de Leon
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MADRID (AP) Under pressure from its closest challenger, Barcelona stumbled again.

Barcelona couldn’t manage more than 1-1 against relegation-wary Las Palmas on Thursday, allowing Atletico Madrid to move within five points of the Spanish league lead ahead of their match this weekend.

[ WATCH: Messi’s arrowed free kick ]

Barcelona, which has drawn three of its last five league matches, will host Atletico on Sunday needing to halt an eight-match winning streak by Diego Simeone’s team.

Barcelona was 11 points in front of Atletico just five rounds ago, but could end the weekend only two points in front of the Madrid club.

“It would be an important match no matter what, with the first-place team playing against the second-place team,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “Maybe now it’s a bit more important with the lead at five points.”

Atletico was boosted by a 4-0 win over Leganes on Wednesday, when Antoine Griezmann scored all four goals.

Lionel Messi put Barcelona ahead on Thursday with a powerful free kick shot into the top corner in the 20th minute, but the hosts equalized through a penalty kick converted by Jonathan Calleri early in the second half after a controversial handball by Barcelona defender Lucas Digne.

At first it wasn’t clear why the penalty was called. A corner kick ricocheted off a post and the ball brushed Digne’s arm. Some Barcelona players initially thought the referee called a foul by Sergio Roberto on Matias Aguirregaray when the ball first arrived into the area.

Valverde said he and his players still didn’t know what the call was.

“They equalized after an invisible penalty,” he said.

Barcelona also complained about a non-call of handball by Las Palmas goalkeeper Leandro Chichizola outside the area just before halftime.

It was the fifth free-kick goal by Messi, who is the league leading scorer with 23, three more than teammate Luis Suarez. The Argentine playmaker has four goals in his last three matches. The Gran Canaria Stadium was one of the few venues where Messi was yet to score in La Liga.

Las Palmas stayed 18th in the 20-team standings, inside the relegation zone. The team from the Canary Islands has won only one of its last six matches.

BETIS DRAWS

Real Betis missed a chance to get near the Europa League qualification spots after being held by Real Sociedad to 0-0 at home.

The result dropped Betis to ninth place, four points behind Eibar, the first team securing a spot in Europe’s second-tier competition.

Sociedad stayed in 14th place.

Real Betis had won three of its last four matches.

ALAVES WINS LATE

Victor Laguardia scored a 90th-minute winner as Alaves handed 10-man Levante its fourth straight loss.

Levante, sitting just outside the relegation zone, played a man down from the 29th. Defender Chema was sent off for a foul that gave the hosts a penalty kick which was missed by midfielder Manu Garcia.

Alaves forward Munir El Haddadi was red-carded for a second booking in the 77th.

Alaves, in 14th place, has won four of its last five matches.

Levante hasn’t won its last 10 matches in all competitions.

There was a minute of silence before matches to honor former Barcelona and Sporting Gijon striker Enrique Castro “Quini,” who died of a heart attack on Tuesday. He was 68.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Messi statue chopped off at ankles

AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
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The fabric of certain subsets of sports culture is a difficult puzzle to assemble from the outside.

For many, the segment of Argentina sports fans who think Lionel Messi left their nation too early has been one of these groups.

For one thing, Messi’s move helped turned him into the best player in the world. For another, just read that first part in a different tone of voice.

[ MORE: Premier League power rankings ]

Messi has had some troubles carrying Argentina on his back in international play, and that’s compounded his reputation with fans, who have seen another of the all-time greats push Argentina over the line largely on his own (Diego Maradona, if it must be said).

That’s a long lead-in to this story, in which Messi’s statue in Buenos Aires has been chopped off at the ankles. It’s the second time it’s been vandalized, standing in park with statues of Manu Ginobili amongst other Argentine sports stars.

It’s certainly not the only Messi statue, so the vandals have more work to do.

Imagine being that angry.

CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying preview: Last call for Russia

Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
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A World Cup without Lionel Messi is a very real possibility, but Argentina is not the lone big name in danger of missing out on Russia.

Tuesday brings the final five matches of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, and only Brazil and — to a lesser extent — Uruguay can feel confident about their places in this summer’s big dance.

[ MORE: USMNT scenarios for final day of WCQ ]

The penultimate match day saw Argentina draw at home to Peru amongst a number of interesting score lines.

Table heading into Matchday 18
Brazil (qualified) — 38 pts, +27 GD, 38 goals
Uruguay (clinched at least 5th) — 28, +10, 28 goals
Chile — 26, +2, 26 goals
Colombia — 26, +2, 20 goals
Peru — 25, +1, 26 goals
Argentina — 25, +1, 16 goals
Paraguay — 24, -5, 19 goals
Ecuador (eliminated) — 20, -1, 25 goals
Bolivia (eliminated) — 14, -20, 14 goals
Venezuela (eliminated) — 9,-17, 18 goals

Matchday 18
Brazil vs. Chile
Ecuador vs. Argentina
Paraguay vs. Venezuela
Peru vs. Colombia
Uruguay vs. Bolivia

The one to circle is Peru vs. Colombia, the only match where both sides are alive on the Road to Russia.

Chile’s trip to Brazil is troubling because even the hosts’ B Team is powerful and no player will risk not impressing with a place in Russia on the line.

Argentina’s visit to Ecuador could be what’s best for Messi and Co., as La Tricolor may still be reeling from elimination on Matchday 17.

Paraguay is home to Venezuela and Uruguay to Bolivia, with both feeling confident about their chances.

The predictions

Chile cannot get past Brazil, but earns a good-looking point

Messi drives Argentina over the line with a win at Ecuador.

Paraguay edges Venezuela

Peru and Colombia split the spoils in Lima.

Uruguay handles Bolivia.

World Cup berths for Uruguay, Argentina, and Colombia. Paraguay finishes fifth an earns a playoff date with New Zealand. Peru and Chile are left out of the 2018 World Cup.

CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying preview: Crunch time

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This is it: the final two match days of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying are here and only three teams are assured of their fates in or out of Russia.

Brazil is in, having lost just once in 16 matches and holding a remarkable plus-27 goal differential in what may be the deepest confederation in the world.

[ MORE: USMNT prospects on show at U-17 World Cup ]

Then there’s Bolivia and Venezuela, the only national teams sure to miss out on the World Cup.

Anything else is possible, truly, with seven teams aiming for three automatic spots and one playoff date with New Zealand.

Remaining opponents
2. Uruguay (27 pts) – Venezuela (A), Bolivia (H)
3. Colombia
 (26 pts) – Paraguay (H), Peru (A)
4. Peru (24 pts) – Argentina (A), Colombia (H)
5. Argentina (24 pts) – Peru (H), Ecuador (A)
6. Chile (23 pts) – Ecuador (H), Brazil (A)
7. Paraguay (21 pts)– Colombia (A), Venezuela (H)
8. Ecuador (20 pts) – Chile (A), Argentina (H)

While most of the matches matter, there are two tipping point events on Thursday. Wins from Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay could render the final day a lot less dramatic.

1. Argentina vs. Peru — There’s a legitimate chance that a prospective loser in Buenos Aires would find itself outside even the playoff spot heading into the final day. A draw and a Chile win could leave Argentina sixth with a tricky trip to Ecuador, while Peru would have to host a Colombia side which may have already qualifier.

2. Ecuador at Chile — La Furia Roja has found myriad ways to lose qualifiers, with own goals and bad cards playing roles, and has a chance to leapfrog Peru and/or Argentina while eliminating Ecuador.