Jul 9, 2014, 9:13 PM EST
It was, in the purest sense, a match neither side wanted to lose.
Holland and Argentina, both within a sniff of the World Cup final, had clear defensive objectives heading into their semifinal clash on Wednesday night.
Argentina’s objective: prevent Arjen Robben from being Arjen Robben.
Holland’s objective: prevent Lionel Messi from being Lionel Messi.
Ultimately, both game-plans ended in success as the two stars were prevented from scoring during regulation and extra time. But whereas both found it difficult to get into the match, it was Robben who shook off the cobwebs to become the danger man everyone has grown to fear.
After a first-half where Javier Mascherano, Enzo Perez, Martin Demichelis and Marcos Rojo beat, battered and double-teamed Robben out of the match, the second-half saw the Dutch wonder assess his situation and make changes to find the ball. With Jordy Claise on for Nigel de Jong, the Dutch began spraying balls out wide and it clicked for Robben: get out of the middle and demand the ball.
He went wide right, then wide left and then back to the right. He looked to dart up the wings as well as take his dribbles on the diagonal. Was it a notable performance for Robben? Not particularly. But he kept trying, kept searching for answers and eventually, was rewarded with two glorious chances to score in the 91st and 96th minutes only to be denied by the brilliant Javier Mascherano.
Messi had similar problems with worse results. He had to deal with guys like Bruno Martins Indi, who was all too happy to thump Messi any chance he had, and Nigel De Jong, who hasn’t seen a shin he doesn’t like to crack. La Pulga’s true nemesis, however, came in the form of a heaving Ron Vlaar who played out of his mind making a handful of sensational slide tackles on the Argentine.
The physical approach was nothing that Messi hadn’t seen in every match he’s played in over the last ten years. The problem was, he let it get to him. It wasn’t just infringements that prompted Messi to throw his hands in the air, it was legal tackles.
His frustration was palpable. And yet, instead of searching for solutions, Messi seemed content standing on the center-backs and simply drawing defenders away from the ball. Which is a fine technique in small doses but for prolonged periods of time? When you’re supposedly the best player in the world?
That’s not good enough.
When Messi did look to see more of the ball it was always through the middle of the pitch where he was promptly swarmed by defenders. And when that didn’t work, well, that was it. He rarely went wide. He didn’t look to change his link-up approach with Gonzalo Higuain or Sergio Aguero. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, that Messi was out of ideas.
Of course, Messi is never out of ideas. But the fact that he didn’t seem bothered to change his approach – to demand the ball, to ask for more from his teammates – was puzzling. How could his influence become so dulled on the one stage he had waited to so long to perform on?
Just 24 hours before the match news broke that a friend of Messi, Argentine journalist Jorge Lopez, had died in a car crash in Sao Paulo.
And just like that, the analysis of Messi’s anti-influence comes to a screeching halt.
So often we expect professional athletes to play through news and events that deeply affect their lives. Is it reasonable? No. But because the greats are just that, legends in human form, we expect them to rise up and conquer no matter what life throws at them.
On Wednesday, Messi faced difficult circumstances and was unable to be the hero we all expect him to be. Thankfully, fate – and four quality penalties - awarded him a second chance. And on Sunday he can prove the semifinal a flash in the pan by going on to stake his claim as the greatest footballer to ever walk the earth.
Nov 24, 2014, 1:17 PM EST
Packwood is a promising defender who can be a big part of the US U-23 picture and onward.
Nov 24, 2014, 12:36 PM EST
Seven of his eight appearances have been substitutions, all in the 76th minute or later.
Nov 24, 2014, 11:35 AM EST
No one told Wright-Phillips another yellow card would keep him out of an MLS Cup Playoff game. Pretty unsettling if you’re a Red Bulls fan.
Nov 24, 2014, 10:45 AM EST
Arteta felt they were dominating the game before an own goal from Kieran Gibbs changed the temperature and, at the risk of losing something in the language, doesn’t think highly of the Red Devils.
Nov 24, 2014, 9:46 AM EST
It wasn’t quite a number that rivaled top American matches, but women’s soccer in England can take an extra bow.
Nov 24, 2014, 9:09 AM EST
A trio of American attackers scored goals and a bevy of defenders and netminders worked good shifts in the own end.
Nov 24, 2014, 8:20 AM EST
Certainly keepers like David De Gea, Tim Howard, Wojciech Szczesny, Hugo Lloris and Salvatore Sirigu are scratching their heads.
Nov 24, 2014, 7:30 AM EST
Two teams on very different form meet on NBCSN to finish off the weekend’s Premier League action.
La Liga and Serie A roundup: Valencia, Napoli falter in Champions League bids; Milan derby a stalemate
Nov 23, 2014, 10:20 PM EST
Catch up on all of Sunday’s action and movement in La Liga and Serie A.
Nov 23, 2014, 8:15 PM EST
The Revs and Galaxy may both hold one-goal advantages, but they’re very different leads built in very different ways.
Nov 23, 2014, 7:45 PM EST
The Crystal Palace manager hailed his side’s “Neil Warnock performance” as they pull themselves out of the relegation zone.
Nov 23, 2014, 7:14 PM EST
The Galaxy find themselves just 90 minutes from the third MLS Cup final in four years after a narrow victory over the Sounders.
Halftime, MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders in 0-0 Western Conference Championship stalemate
Nov 23, 2014, 6:05 PM EST
Zeroes on the scoresheet, but plenty of action in the first half. Sounders very patient, but Galaxy getting close.
Nov 23, 2014, 5:32 PM EST
He’s only ever done it twice in his MLS career, but with the season — and maybe his career — on the line, Thierry Henry will play on artificial turf next week.
Nov 23, 2014, 4:50 PM EST
The Spurs manager wouldn’t be drawn into talk about the winner from Christian Eriksen or the red card to Gaston Ramirez, instead discussing how he was just delighted to get three points any way he can.
Lineups, MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy host Seattle Sounders in Western Conference Championship, leg 1
Nov 23, 2014, 4:25 PM EST
Lineups are in for the Galaxy and Sounders’ Western Conference Championship first leg matchup. Two massive omissions leave Seattle shorthanded.
Nov 23, 2014, 4:07 PM EST
The Eastern Conference Championship first leg finished Red Bulls 1-2 Revolution, putting Jay Heaps’ side in full control of the series.
Nov 23, 2014, 3:10 PM EST
Steve Bruce challenged the decision to give Gaston Ramirez a straight red card, and criticized Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen for going down too easily.
Halftime, MLS Cup Playoffs: New York Red Bulls 1-1 New England Revolution after thrilling first half
Nov 23, 2014, 2:52 PM EST
The first 45 at Red Bull Arena was wild. Take a deep breath and relive the thrilling actions, goals and all.
Nov 23, 2014, 2:00 PM EST
New England is undefeated in 11 straight matches with Jermaine Jones in the lineup.
- Americans Abroad review: Boyd bags brace, Johannsson heads home (video) 2
- Premier League Preview: Aston Villa vs. Southampton 0
- Inside Look, MLS Cup Playoffs: How Revs, Galaxy built very different one-goal leads 0
- Recap: LA Galaxy grab 1-0 lead over Seattle Sounders in Western Conference Championship 1
- Despite artificial turf, New York Red Bulls’ Thierry Henry says he’ll play next week at New England 1
- Recap: New England Revolution snatch 2-1 lead, two away goals from New York Red Bulls 7