How the mighty have fallen. Against the Netherlands, Brazil rolled out a lineup featuring many changes from the one that was steamrollered by the Germans, with Hulk and Fred starting the game on the bench. In what was a bit of a continuation of the semifinal, disaster struck early as Thiago Silva brought down Arjen Robben right outside the box. Silva was fortunate to escape without a red card, but the referee still awarded a penalty kick for the offense. After Robin Van Persie nailed his shot, the Dutch controlled the remainder of the game and limited Brazil’s chances. The Netherlands played conservatively following a second goal in the 17th minute and for the most part it was an unspectacular affair. For Brazil, the tournament could not have ended any faster.
Following the injury to Neymar and the yellow card suspension of the captain Silva, the team fell into disarray. Being outscored 10-1 at home in a two game stretch is unheard of from Brazil. Whoever follows in Scolari’s footsteps will need to take a good hard look at the roster and make some significant changes (please, no more Fred). Many of the players’ spots are in jeopardy and deservingly so. The future for Brazil is a mystery. For the Netherlands, the third place finish is a nice way to cap off a great two World Cups. Not many expected the Dutch to repeat the success they had in South Africa. Their performance this year was arguably more impressive considering their slate of opponents. Coach Louis van Gaal is leaving for Manchester United, and for many on the squad, this was the last time representing their nation. While some players may return to Russia in 2018, the Netherlands will consist primarily of new faces. — Nick Barton
Have you seen Lionel Messi?
He’s a brilliant little Argentine footballer. No, not the coked-out, tax-evading one. Our guy plays his club football in Spain for the suddenly leaky Barcelona Empire. “La Pulga,” as he might respond to, was last seen – in his true, authentic, other-worldly self – lining up a 25 yard free kick in roughly the 122nd minute for an Argentina side rabid with desperation.
After that set piece sailed high and wide and the last bit of spark was drained out of The Little One, he looked up to the heavens.
It was hard to spot, but I think I caught it. The real Messi – the one who had put hope into the hearts of all 41 million Argentines –disappeared. It was a flash, kind of a blur, and it happened so quickly and amidst such chaos that I couldn’t fault you if you missed it. But after he looked upwards in a confluence of disbelief and “get me out of here” fright, Leo Messi vanished.
Or, really, I should be clearer. Our Leo Messi got out of there.
The one we know, the one with the ball glued to his feet and the perfect play just a moment away, was not around anymore. He was suddenly gone. Our Messi wasn’t there to pick up his runner up medal. Our Leo Messi didn’t have to begrudgingly accept the Golden Ball, not because he wasn’t deserving, but because our Messi wasn’t at the Maracana anymore.
In his place stood a zombie: sulking, silent, stunned. The footballing soul of Leo Messi had been saved by the great goalkeeper in the sky, because the pain that would soon follow would be too much. It would not be fair to subject our Messi to this. So away he went.
A genius can execute moments of brilliance. A savant can make your jaw drop. A wizard will most certainly make you question what you hold so dearly. But in the end, all the voodoo in the world cannot stand up to a well-oiled machine without some help.
Messi did not receive that help today. That was a lacking finish, Gonzalo Higuain. Your composure on the counterattack was a little lacking, Sergio Aguero. And I’m sorry, Rodrigo Palacio, such a critical juncture requires a superior shot.
Have you seen Lionel Messi? Our diminutive dynamo probably just got lost trying to navigate his treasure map for immortality. Poor boy’s had it forever and just can’t seem to decipher it. If you find him, would you mind directing him back on path? And hurry, if you can. Russia 2018 is only about 1400 days away, and I, for one, can’t wait for the return of the greatest footballer to never win the World Cup. Let’s hope he gets another chance to change that title. — Peter Barston
For all the flak he took for diving, Bastian Schweinsteiger actually played a tremendous box-to-box game of soccer. After being booked in the 29th minute, Schweinsteiger still managed to play effectively into the German attack and shadow Messi as Argentina tried to counter. His defensive importance heightened with the (injury-forced) offensive-minded substitution of André Schürrle into the game in the 32nd minute. The Bayern man was up for the task, displaying his world class combination of size, strength, vision, and marking ability (doesn’t that sound like what we should hope Michael Bradley can become?) and willing what was ultimately the better side to an epic World Cup final victory.
Alejandro Sabella’s half-time speech should’ve made one thing clear: no more crosses lobbed into the box. The Argentine attackers were too small and the German central defense—led by goalkeeper Manuel Neuer—too big to have any shot at getting under a floated ball. The message went either unspoken or unheard, as Argentina came out in the second half continuing the futile approach. Neuer was not losing any balls in the air on Sunday. Period. End of story. As he showed in his bone-crunching collision with Gonzalo Higuain, he was willing to go through a wall to win the ball. Sometimes, brawn trumps all, and Sunday was one of those days.
Messi was fully deserving of the Golden Ball, in my humble opinion. The wonder strike to beat Iran. The ankle breaking and ultimately game-winning goal run against Bosnia. That’s six points right there, in Argentina’s first two group games, that would be reduced to no more than two if not for Lionel Messi. Often in sports, we get too deep into the “best versus most valuable” debate, but in this case, the argument is null. Messi is the best and most valuable player in world soccer, and this tournament only served to confirm that. — Matt Bell
Follow Matt on Twitter: @mjbell16
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