Lionel Messi set to pose Max Allegri an unsolvable problem

lionel-messi-01It was just last summer that Luis Enrique and Max Allegri came to be. A couple of months separated their arrivals at Barcelona and Juventus, but they drew familiarity in the immediate questions surrounding their promotions. While the Asturian was scrutinised in his ability to manage a top European club, Allegri was deemed a step down from the departing Antonio Conte; even ridiculed at times. And yet one year on, both men stand on the precipice of an historic treble.

Time has healed the apprehension surrounding the pair, while a triumph for either on Saturday night would take them to once unimaginable heights. Even the most diehard of detractors would have a job on then, though the fashion in which the game is won and lost will perhaps leave the biggest imprint.

With Barcelona heading into the contest as favourites, a dispatch of Juve akin to that of the Bayern and Paris St-Germain games would see the Catalans archived as another of Europe’s greatest ever teams, while Luis Enrique would converge the path of Pep Guardiola’s historic reign some years before. Though the front three of Messi, Neymar and Suárez will hog the billboards for as long as they are together, their coach and his associates are special talents too (as much as it continually appears taboo to say).

The sheer fitness, intensity and hunger displayed by Barcelona this year puts pay to the feelings that the coach doesn’t have a grip on his team. More than that, they are a renewed beast; boasting more tools than possibly ever before. Their transformation in terms of set pieces at the hands of Juan Carlos Unzué, perhaps a leading example of that.

The task for Max Allegri on Saturday night is a different one entirely though. For the Italian, preparing the most meticulous, ingenious game plan ever seen in a European final, could still see his team leave empty handed at this rate. For unlike his opposite number, Allegri can only hope that his team are spared in the German capital. “It’s practically impossible,” the Juventus manager said on Monday.

He was referring to the potential man-marking of Lionel Messi; a decision which he will have soon retracted had he been thinking of it before last weekend’s Copa del Rey final when the Argentine obliterated his Basque opposition. It’s not that Juventus don’t have potential match winners too, it’s just that they’re not Messi.

Juventus stalwart Gianluigi Buffon has since echoed Allegri’s sentiments too. “Messi is an alien that dedicates himself to playing with humans,” the captain said on Tuesday. “The only hope is that this Saturday he will be from earth, like the rest of us.”

It’s pertinent that Juventus’ inspiration, as well as the man who will be his team’s last port of call for stopping the little man, feels that way. But it only serves to reinforce the cyclone that the ‘Old Lady’ could be preparing to enter at 7.45 on Saturday night.

2015 has simply produced a monster in Messi; thanks to a changing of diet, a tinkering in his role, and a new-found measure in his work. He is far removed from the long-haired wild man who came to prominence almost a decade ago. Nowadays, he plays with the aura of realised genius and can kill you from anywhere, seemingly whenever he chooses at the moment.

Last weekend at the Camp Nou, he chose slaloming past four Athletic Bilbao defenders and hammering past Iago Herrerín with a run that began from a static position on the halfway line. Until then, Ernesto Valverde’s team were coping perfectly. After Messi had done, they were never the same.

For the weeks of preparation that both managers and teams will have undergone by the time the ball rolls in Berlin, the end result can be shaped by one man alone. And therein lies the difference for Luis Enrique and Max Allegri.

While both have proved themselves to be excellent organisers and tactically astute operators throughout the tournament, the Catalans hold the pawn. Allegri is capable of matching Luis Enrique stride-for-stride, except the one area; the one where Messi goes.

Television graphics tell you that’s on the right wing, but it’s not. There is no tracking his trail. It spreads like a raging wildfire, before there becomes too many flames to extinguish. If it’s not the man himself putting the ball away, he will supplement the equally insatiable appetite of those around him.

Of course, Messi is not solely responsible for Barcelona standing ninety minutes away from a treble. Nor are his partners in crime, Neymar and Suárez. The longevity and consistency of the team’s success could only have been born of an outstanding collective effort; one that has emanated from Luis Enrique and his associates, and gradually immersed within their ultra-talented squad. But when it comes down to ninety minutes, these are the ones who make the difference. Messi has done so in every Champions League final he’s been fortunate enough to feature.

In the German capital, Juventus will present themselves as the underdogs, though they would be unwise to think heart and desire will bridge the discrepancy in quality. Gifted beyond measure Luis Enrique’s team may be; uncompetitive they are not. Barcelona will not wilt, whatever the Italians throw at them. And that is an asset that can be directly credited to the young manager’s regime.

They will need to call on those qualities one more time this season, where the prize is bigger than ever. If Barcelona get their approach as accurate as they have done for pretty much the entirety of 2015, it is their game to lose. The work has been done, the criticism has evaporated, and the Catalans could not be in a better place on the eve of the final.

One more effort is required from Luis Enrique and his team, and there’s little evidence to suggest it won’t be forthcoming. If it’s business as usual for the Blaugrana in a collective sense, Juventus have problems. If it’s business as usual for Messi too, they have an unsolvable problem.

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 JAMIE KEMPjamie k avatar is a freelance football writer focusing on the Spanish game in particular. Follow Jamie on Twitter.

Can Cotto retain his WBC crown?

Miguel Cotto makes his return to the ring after dispatching Sergio Martinez in 10 rounds to win the WBC Middleweight title. Although Martinez looked to be carrying an injury, Cotto’s past achievements still speak for themselves. Challenging him for his belt is Australia’s Daniel Geale, who comfortably outpointed Jarrod Fletcher after his heavy loss to Gennady Golovkin.

The fight takes place this Saturday at the famed Barclays Center in New York and will of course be televised globally. Although the Middleweight limit is normally 160 pounds, the fight has been agreed at a catchweight of 157 pounds. This was at Cotto’s request and it would seem the fight would no happen at all if this was to be at 160.

Fighting at 157 will suit Cotto far better. He is the naturally smaller man and used to fighting at a lower weight; Geale is a natural Middleweight and will possibly be weight drained at this limit. Of course, Geale might potentially feel as fit as ever but he will no doubt feel more sluggish if the fight is dragged into the later rounds. Though Cotto doesn’t go into the latter stages too often (32 of his 39 wins have come by knockout), his power won’t be the same at this weight thus reducing the chances of a KO. Yes, he made Martinez quit but that was more down to his failing knees as opposed to Cotto’s power.

What Cotto is very accomplished at however, is pretty much everything. He is one of the most well-rounded fighters in boxing today; combining excellent technical ability with a strong work rate and astute ring IQ. He possesses a hard jab with exceptional precision. He has a 4″ reach disadvantage against Geale though, so Cotto might find the jab less effective as he normally would. If he can use his jab to get on the inside of Geale, Cotto can use his thunderous body hooks to further tire Geale out which – combined with Geale possibly being weight drained – could leave to a late stoppage in the fight due to his exhaustion. Cotto is also a very tough fight having only been stopped twice: once in the 12th by Pacquiao and also by Margarito, the latter being followed by the infamous handwrap saga…

Though slightly the less accomplished fighter, Geale is still a fine boxer too. His movement is a useful tool and he can prove to be very elusive when he wants to be. Normally Geale likes to move into range, work and then get out of the danger zone pretty quickly. Given his size advantage over Cotto, he could choose to do this whilst fighting on the backfoot and allowing Cotto to walk him down. His movement couldn’t get him out of trouble with Golovkin, but Golovkin’s cutting off of the ring i sone of the best in the game and I’d be surprised to see Cotto landing huge shots on Geale early on. Geale isn’t a particularly powerful puncher – which his record of 16KO’s from 31 wins suggests – but he is able to punch his weight. The style he fights isn’t based around power punches so it’s unlikely the weight issues with adversely affect him in that regard.

The mandatory challenger for the WBC belt is a certain Gennady Golovkin. Both fighters go into this knowing they will most likely have to face him should they come out on top. Geale flat out quit against him. In Geale’s defence he did try to take the fight to Golovkin which was ultimately what ended everything so swiftly for him. Cotto hasn’t exactly given a bullish answer about fighting Golovkin in the future, instead looking to hype up a fight with Canelo Alvarez.

As much as I hate to constantly mention it, the catchweight will play into this. At 160 pounds this is a very different fight. At 157 however, I favour Cotto – just. Geale’s superior defensive footwork should save him from being knocked out, though he’ll start to trail off at the back end of the fight. Cotto on points is the smart bet.

Teamwork will make the dream work for Golden State

NBA Golden State Seth CurryBasketball and statistics have forever been bedfellows. For decades, box scores showed each player’s basic stats: minutes, field goals attempted (and made), free throws attempted (and made), fouls, rebounds, assists and points. Those numbers, while almost entirely focused on the offensive end of the court, were able to give a rudimentary overview of a player’s basketball efficiency. Nowadays, as befits our modern sporting landscape, statistical evaluation of a player is suitably advanced and wide-ranging. Rather than cold, hard numbers, tallied by someone sitting at the side of the court, equations and algorithms conspire to give a more analytical, mathematical assessment of the production of NBA players and teams.

Such analytics will tell you that the 2014/15 Golden State Warriors are one of the best NBA teams of all time, and heavy favourites to win the NBA Finals against the narrative-laden Cleveland Cavaliers. They are accurate assessments that reflect the strength of this team, and they are more than enough to persuade someone to bet on the Warriors to win the title (as I did in January with the price still 6-1). But ultimately, this team must be seen to be believed, and that’s why I insist that anyone reading watches the NBA Finals, especially those who have perhaps seen a bit of NBA action but ‘didn’t think it was for them’.

The Warriors are led by the league’s MVP Steph Curry, as exhilarating on the court as Lionel Messi is on the pitch, while equally as humble (and much more entertaining) off it. The comparisons continue: like Messi, Curry is no maverick, privileging team ethic and hard work over individual glory or ego. Yet crucially, and just like the mesmerising Messi, Curry has both the remit and the ability to blow the minds of spectators and boggle those of opponents, to make blink veteran viewers who think they have seen it all, and, this season more than ever, the skinny kid with the weak ankles (who must also be known as the Greatest Shooter of All Time) has done so again and again. It’s not just about Curry. The Warriors have wheeled, dealed and drafted their way into just about the strongest, deepest roster that is feasibly possible in a salary-capped league. They have two former All Stars coming off the bench, for goodness sake.

Of course, since LeBron James hit the peak of his powers in 2007, his mere presence on a team has been enough to take it to the NBA Finals on six out of nine occasions. The best player since Michael Jordan, LeBron is still operating at a completely transcendent level in all aspects of the game, and the ridiculously simple advantage of ‘having LeBron’ cannot be under-estimated, nor perhaps quantified. Unfortunately, with a supporting cast of teammates that often seem to find themselves wearing casts, LeBron’s current level of basketball – which both basic and advanced statistics will tell you represents potentially the best NBA post-season performance of all-time – will still not be enough to take himself, and his hometown team, to glory. LeBron’s unrivalled set of skills and will to win should be enough to avoid a sweep, but despite the cult of the individual often taking precedence within the media, basketball is, of course, a team game, and as one of the best teams of all time, I expect the Golden State Warriors to win the series either 4-1, or 4-2.

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Ali Maxwell sports betting blogger

ALI MAXWELL is about to graduate with a degree in French, and is looking to enter the world of Broadcasting and Sports Media, specifically focusing on basketball and English and European football (soccer). Follow him on Twitter.

Matchbook on the ball with charity football tournament

Right_To_Play_MatchbookMatchbook, the leading sports betting exchange, is supporting a corporate charity football tournament this Wednesday, June 3, at Stamford Bridge – the west London home of newly crowned Premier League champions Chelsea FC.

Matchbook is sponsoring the Plate Trophy at the Right To Play World Cup – an event that raises money for sports and play activities that teach youngsters from around the world essential life skills to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict and disease.

The tournament will feature 24 teams of up to 12 players each competing in five-a-side and then seven-a-side group games before an 11-a-side final takes place on the famous pitch.

Matchbook’s senior campaign manager, Danielle Desroches, said: “Through our sponsorship, we are supporting 1,000 extra children taking part in Right To Play programmes twice a week for a whole year.”

Desroches said that the sponsorship of the good cause tallies with Matchbook’s core values – namely to deliver the purest betting experience to the customer, with low commission rates, attractive odds and high volume liquidity.

“Every day at Matchbook we strive to deliver the best betting experience to our community of sports lovers, by committing to our goal of giving you more,” Desroches added. “On June 3, through our support of the Right To Play World Cup, we want to give more to those who need it most.

“As an organisation that experiences the importance that sports can play in everyone’s lives, we have a responsibility to ensure everyone can experience those joys.”

Members of the public, as well as the families of those competing, are invited to attend the event.