Matt Besler has spent the past couple of days studying film of Argentina’s Lionel Messi, searching for flaws and weaknesses, only to come to a frightful conclusion: there aren’t any.
And that could be a huge problem for the U.S., which faces Messi and Argentina, the world’s top-ranked team, in a Copa America Centenario semifinal Tuesday before a sellout crowd of approximately 70,000 at NRG Stadium (6 p.m., FSI, Univision, UDN).
“I don’t think there’s a comparison to that guy. You say you want to get pressure on Messi and not let him have time on the ball, but how do you do that?” Besler asked rhetorically before training Monday. “Even when guys step up to him and are right on him, he finds ways to wiggle out.”
“It’s a huge challenge,” the defender continued. “Probably the biggest challenge for us as a defensive unit. “
But it’s a challenge that can be overcome, insisted U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann.
“Anything is possible,” he said. “It’s not that they win every game. They lose games as well. And when they lose games, they make mistakes.”
Klinsmann first learned that lesson in the 1990 World Cup final, when he played on a West German team that beat Argentina and Diego Maradona, the Messi of his day.
“We all admire these types of players. But there are also ways to stop them,” Klinsmann said. “I’m not the type of a person who pulls out old stories and tells players how we did it. But there are ways, obviously, to play against these wonderful players.
“It’s down right now to confidence, being proud of yourself and tak[ing] it to another level. Give it a try. So we’re going to pump our guys up.”
Messi is not a one-man team through. Although he ranks second in the Copa with four goals, he came into the event with a back injury that has limited him to one start and two other appearances off the bench. And even without him, Argentina outscored opponents, 9-2, the second-largest goal differential in the tournament.
“It’s a very good team,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “We all understand that.”
The U.S. has also put together a pretty performance in this tournament, though it’s happened quietly. While Argentina has won its last three games by a total of 11 goals, two of the three U.S. wins have been a goal each – the first over Paraguay, with the U.S. hanging on despite playing half the game a man down, and the second against 13th-ranked Ecuador in the quarterfinals.
With three goals and three assists, Clint Dempsey trails only Messi and Chile’s Eduardo Vargas in scoring. And Brad Guzan is the only goalkeeper in the tournament who has yet to allow a goal from open play.
If Tuesday’s game is tied after the 90 minutes, the teams will skip extra time and go straight to penalty kicks to determine a winner.
The team Klinsmann sends out Tuesday will necessarily differ from the one he used to such success in the first four games though. After making just two lineup changes in the tournament, the suspensions of forward Bobby Wood and midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones – Wood and Bedoya for accumulated yellow cards and Jones for a straight red – will force wholesale changes for this match.
And if Klinsmann has chosen a replacement, he’s keeping it a secret
“We don’t know anything yet,” said the Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes, one option to replace Wood. “We’re curious to see what’s going to happen.”
He’s also curious to see Messi, he added with a grin.
“I love playing against the best players. And I consider him the best player,” Zardes said. “To play against Argentina, it’s a huge accomplishment.”
A bigger one would be beating them.
“Although they create numerous opportunities, they also give up a handful,” Zardes said. “If you bury those opportunities, the game could be different.”