These Are Actual Professional Players Messi Is Making Look Like Practice Cones Here

The incomparable Lionel Messi was at it again this past weekend, making Atletico Bilbao defenders look like Washington General–style accomplices in his showmanship en route to Barcelona’s first goal in a 2-2 draw on Saturday.

Take a look:

As Prison Mike said, he makes stuff like this look too easy.

Sidenote: There’s a clip of this floating around with beIN Sports’ Ray Hudson doing the commentary, and we gotta say, the former Miami Fusion and D.C. United coach may have jumped the shark when it comes to broadcasting Messi brilliance.

His way over-the-top response—with phrases like “he emasculates them individually, collectively!” and “he disperses his atoms to one side of his body…!”—actually detracts from the sensational action on display.

Tamp it down a bit, Ray. You’re getting in the way.

Watch Barcelona Ping Nine Passes in Nine Seconds Against Malaga

This never would have happened if US defender Oguchi Onyewu had been in the game for Malaga.*

But the big man from Bethesda, MD, was stuck on the bench, and could only watch as Barcelona toyed with his team in one brilliant sequence en route to a 3-1 win in La Liga on Sunday.

Take a look:

It’s worth noting that this is not a bottom-of-the-table side that Barcelona made to look like stationary orange cones; Malaga is in fifth place in La Liga with a 9-6-4 record and a shot at a Europa League berth.

* It still would have happened.

By the Numbers: Is Spain the Best Team Ever?

Now that Spain has become the first European team in soccer history to win three consecutive major tournaments—having scooped up the 2008 Euro, 2010 World Cup, and 2012 Euro titles—they’ve moved front-and-center in all conversations regarding the greatest teams ever.

There are multiple candidates for that title, from the Dutch and West German teams of the 1970s, the Hungary side of the 1950s, several eras of Brazilian teams, and France’s team from the late 1990s to the early oughts.

But most observers agree that it comes down to Brazil’s team from the early 1970s and the 2008–12 Spanish side.

We could argue subjective style points all day, but right now, let’s take a look at some hard data:

• As mentioned, Spain is the first team from Europe to win three straight major tournaments.

• The last 71 times Spain has taken a 1-0 lead, they’ve won—a span stretching back to 2006.

• Spain’s 4-0 win over Italy in the Euro 2012 final is the widest margin of victory ever in a Euro or World Cup final.

• Spain hasn’t lost in its last 12 European Championship matches (nine wins, three draws)—a record for the event.

• With a 60.03% possession rate per game, Spain had more of the ball than any other side in the competition (the Republic of Ireland had the least possession, with 39.52%).

La Furia Roja averaged 626.3 passes per game, more than any other team at Euro 2012 (the Republic of Ireland averaged the fewest, with 221.3 per match).

• Spain has not given up a goal in its last five European Championship games, another Euro record.

• Except for the 2009 Confederations Cup—when they lost to the United States 2-0 in the semis, and defeated South Africa 3-2 in the consolation match—Spain has not conceded a single goal in the knockout stages of a tournament since 2006.

Bonus fact: Only one team has beaten both Euro finalists—Italy and Spain—in the past three years, and that is … wait for it … the United States.

H/T’s: BBC, ESPN, RefBaiter

Ireland Needs Some “Joxer-Goes-to-Stuttgart” Inspiration Ahead of Spain Match Today

After a 3-1 loss to Croatia in their Euro 2012 opener, Ireland and LA Galaxy striker Robbie Keane need a special effort against world No. 1 Spain to get back in contention in Group C.

Maybe this’ll help:

Pack up the rosary beads and sandwiches, Ireland fans, this is a big one.

For his part, Keane is ready. He spoke to Reuters in advance of the game:

“For me personally, as captain, there is not a chance in hell that I will go into any game thinking that I can’t win it. We have to believe that we have every chance to get a win. It’s 11 versus 11 for 90 minutes. We’ve played against the biggest teams and beaten them and drawn with them. People have written us off and given us no hope. The fact of the matter is after what happened the other night against Croatia we need to get points on the board.”

The game is at 2:45 on ESPN2.

H/T to Our Man at the Valley

Lionel Messi Has 61 Goals this Season

He is the first player to top 60 goals in a first-rank European league since Bayern Munich’s Gerd Muller bagged 67 in 1972-73. He has 24 goals in his last 13 games, and he has 39 in La Liga, a total that leads the league and is one shy of the record set by Cristiano Ronaldo last season.

His 61st came in a 4-0 blowout of Getafe, a game in which he also had two assists. Highlights here:

As the RefBaiter noted, the passing on Messi’s goal “was just ridiculous.” Barcelona have closed the gap on Real Madrid and now sit just one point behind their first-place archrivals.

Another Day, Another Lionel Messi Golazo

Casual nutmeg followed by let’s-just-put-that-there chip to the far side netting:

Amazing. Does anyone wield a chip in the box like he does? Goalkeepers are defenseless against it.

That was against 12th-place Sevilla, and Barca won the game 2-0 to pull to within eight points of first-place Real Madrid, which tied Malaga 1-1. There are 11 games to play in La Liga.

USMNT Roundup

Yeah, so, this happened:

The logic of scheduling a friendly with Spain—the world champions and a team looking to avenge a defeat to the U.S.—just three days before the start of the most important competition of the year was always doubtful.

We could see playing, say, Venezuela or Ecuador that day, or, if it had to be a European opponent, how about Luxembourg or the Faroe Islands? Spain just made no sense.

Bob Bradley clearly felt the same way, starting a makeshift lineup of inexperienced players while leaving veterans Steve Cherundolo, Landon Donovan (who was ill, but probably wouldn’t have started if he’d been healthy), Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey on the bench for the opening whistle.

The youngsters got embarrassed, and the question of whether it was a good “learning experience” for them is debatable.

So let’s just crumple that one up, toss it over the shoulder and look ahead to tonight’s Gold Cup opener against Canada (7:30, EDT, Fox Soccer Channel):

Alejandro Bedoya, who’s been in camp for a week or so and played 25 minutes against Spain, has officially replaced the injured Benny Feilhaber (ankle) on the U.S. roster. The former Boston College attacker is off to a great start with Orebro in Sweden, scoring four goals in 10 games. He had two assists and a goal in his last game with the club before joining the U.S. camp. See here (nice backheel on the second goal):

• This is probably Canada’s best team, ever. The roster is stocked with solid MLS players, including Dwayne De Rosario (New York), Julian de Guzman (Toronto FC), Terry Dunfield (Vancouver), Andre Hainault (Houston) and Will Johnson (Real Salt Lake). The Canucks also feature several players coming off successful European campaigns, such as Simeon Jackson, who scored 13 goals in 20 games to help Norwich win the NPower Championship and promotion to the Premier League next season, and PSV Eindhoven midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, who made 33 appearances and scored two goals as PSV finished third in the Dutch Eredivisie.

Winger Josh Simpson is another one to watch: He led Turkish club Manisaspor in scoring this season, bagging 12 goals from his spot on the left wing.

They’re a seasoned group with more talent than most people recognize, and they won’t be intimidated by the U.S. They’re biggest weakness is the backline, where they’re missing D.C. United centerback Dejan Jakovic (hamstring) and their wing defenders are suspect.

• Canada may have some extra motivation in this one, not that they’ll need it. The last time these two teams met, in the semifinal of the 2007 Gold Cup, Hutchinson scored an apparent equalizer in stoppage time that was disallowed for offside. Replays showed that the goal should have counted.

The U.S. won the game 2-1 and went on to beat Mexico 2-1 in the final on (we’ll take any excuse to re-post it) Feilhaber’s golazo:

You can bet the Canucks will have the ’07 game in the back of their minds, regardless of what they say publicly.

The U.S. will have to be up for it, and ready to match Canada’s intensity right from the opening whistle.

• It seems likely that Tim Ream, who went the full 90 against Spain, will not feature in the U.S. backline tonight, which leaves Oguchi Onyewu, Clarence Goodson, and Carlos Bocanegra as the top options in central defense (followed by Jonathan Spector and Maurice Edu).

Onyewu looked lost against Spain, and if Canada starts the speedy, 5’ 5” Jackson up top, the U.S. may not want two 6’ 4” centerbacks (Gooch and Goodson) in their starting lineup. We’d go with Bocanegra and Goodson in the middle, Cherundolo on the right and Jonathan Bornstein on the left (hey, the options there are—still—fairly thin, and Bornstein has the speed to stay with Jackson).

• Tidbit: Canadian midfielder Will Johnson and Michael Bradley were teammates on the Chicago Soccers youth team, also the onetime home of Spector and Jay DeMerit.

What do you think of the matchup? Who should start for the U.S.? Any chance Bedoya gets the nod in midfield and Dempsey starts up top? Let us know in the comments.

62-Year Fulham Supporter on Dempsey: “He Comes Up with the Goods”

Just in case you’d momentarily forgotten that Clint Dempsey is indeed a badass, a little reminder:

Deuce will be leading the U.S. against a nearly full-strength Spain tomorrow (ESPN, 4:30 ET) in a rematch of the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal. The U.S. won that game 2-0, ending Spain’s 35-match unbeaten streak, so you can bet Iniesta and Co. will be looking to make amends.

Sleepy Friday here, but we’re going to post some Gold Cup nuggets a little later. That tournament, CONCACAF’s most important event, kicks off on Sunday in Dallas with matches between Costa Rica and Cuba and Mexico and El Salvador.

We imagine there will be some kind of opening ceremony. Given the confederation’s recent difficulties, who will show up to cut the ribbon on this tournament? Who’s really in charge of the confederation right now? And is Cowboys Stadium big enough for both Lisle Austin and Chuck Blazer?

We are in uncharted territory here.

Viva Espana!

Spain etched its name in the history of international soccer yesterday with a 1-0, extra time win over the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final. Andres Iniesta scored the winner in the 116th minute, giving Spain its first World Cup crown and making it just the third team in history to hold the European Championship and World Cup titles at the same time.*

The victory was also a win for stylish soccer, as Spain stuck to its precise, short passing game and creative attacking movement in the face of disruptive and occasionally dirty tactics from the Dutch. There were 14 yellow cards in the game and one red, to Dutch defender Johnny Heitinga, with 11 minutes remaining in extra time.

In the 28th minute, Dutch midfielder Nigel De Jong, the same fella who broke Stuart Holden’s leg with a nasty tackle back in March, karate kicked Xavi Alonso in the chest and somehow escaped without a red.

(Here was Holden’s reaction, in real time, via Twitter: “How is de Jong not sent off there?? Reckless challenge.. Again…” @stuholden22)

That play typified, at the extreme end, the Netherlands’ approach to the game: They wanted to disrupt Spain’s rhythm and, apparently, to intimidate them out of their trademark style of attractive soccer. Fortunately for Spain, and for the sport, it didn’t work. La Furia Roja kept playing its game and kept creating opportunities until finally cashing in on Iniesta’s strike late in extra time, after a pass from second half sub Cesc Fabregas:

Note the nifty backheel by Iniesta at the start of the sequence.

So why did the Dutch go so far with their physical tactics when they have a full complement of skillful players, seemingly capable of competing with Spain without breaking out the brass knuckles? Here is coach Bert van Marwijk after the match (via The New York Times)

It was still our intention to play beautiful football, but we were also facing a very good opponent. Spain is the best football country the past few years. I think both sides committed fouls. It may be regrettable this happened in a final. That’s not our style. But you do play to win.

Translation: We didn’t have faith that we could play with them, so we took our best shot at winning—pounding them wherever and whenever possible. And as for his “both sides committed fouls” comment, Spain committed 19, while the Dutch racked up 28.

So it’s a stretch to say that the Netherlands tried to play beautiful soccer, but they did create some chances, including two breakaways by winger Arjen Robben. On the first, he was thwarted by a desperation kick save from Spanish keeper Iker Casillas, and on the second, Casillas smothered the ball at Robben’s feet after a rugged challenge on the Dutch speedster by Spain defender Carlos Puyols.

There was an irony there, as Backpost reader Old 27 pointed out: Robben was in some ways the poster boy for diving at this tournament, but he stayed on his feet on this play. If he had gone down, Puyols likely would have gotten his second yellow (if not a straight red as the last man back) and the Dutch would have had a free kick in a dangerous area.

But that’s water under the bridge now. All in all, it was not a great final, but the better team did win, we got an exciting finish, and we avoided the dreaded penalty shootout.

Other big winners in this tournament were the host nation, South Africa, which staged a successful World Cup in the face of worldwide skepticism about its ability to do so , and of course, Paul the incredible soothsaying octopus, who went eight-for-eight in predicting matches down the stretch.

Unfortunately for the betting public, given the average life span of octopi, Paul will not be around to call matches at Brazil 2014

*Spain won Euro 2008; the others in this club are West Germany, 1972 Euro, ’74 World Cup; and France 1998 World Cup, 2000 Euro.