OK, I’m stretching to get a Rush reference into these. But the heart wants what it wants.
It’s a whole new world for Argentina coming into this World Cup. Certainly in Russia in 2018, and to an extent in Brazil in 2014, the noise around the Albiceleste coming into the tournament was to sort of wonder how they could surround Lionel Messi with such an underwhelming collection of the bewildered and slow. Of course, in 2014, Messi dragged them to the final, but he needed four goals in just the group stage, including a last-minute winner against Iran. They needed extra time to get past Switzerland in the second round, basically hung on to beat Belgium after scoring in the eighth minute, and squeaked through on penalties over The Netherlands in one of the worst matches ever played. And had Gonzalo Higuain been able to locate his ass with one hand and a GPS, Argentina probably would have won the final. But an impressive team, it was not.
2018 was even worse, where they barely scraped out of the group, and though they threw something of a scare into France taking a 2-1 lead, they mostly got thwacked thereafter (2.2 – 0.8 in xG). Looking at the lineup that day, only Angel Di Maria could claim to be anywhere near world-class level, as Javier Mascherano by that point was using a walker to get around the pitch. Even the 2014 team only had Di Maria, a still clinging to his prime Mascherano, and arguably Pablo Zabaleta. The urge is to put Higuain on the list, except when he was putting on an Argentina shirt he reverted to being Alvaro Morata or something. And his costing Messi three major trophies with their country with some hilarious misses backs that up. You know it’s bad when you get a dedicated YouTube video of your failures.
This time around, Argentina are being mentioned as the second or third favorite with France and Brazil. Some of that is based on their Copa America victory last year. And they did that in a variety of ways. They utterly clubbed Ecuador in the quarters, and did the same against Colombia in the semis but were the victims of David Ospina’s latest wonderwall for his country and needed penalties. Against Brazil at The Maracana, they were able to score in the first half and then smother the hosts pretty effectively (0.7 xG while trailing for most of the match for Brazil) to win Messi his first major trophy for Argentina.
They’ve gone on to lace through qualifying after that, with only draws against Paraguay and Brazil at home a blemish, as well as a last-day draw against Ecuador that didn’t really mean anything to them. In fact, Argentina haven’t lost in a very long time, with a 35-match unbeaten run heading into this tournament. That’s a little hard to judge fully, as they’ve only been able to play non-European teams for the most part thanks to the Nations League and the marathon South American qualifying process. However, when they got a look at Italy in the Finalissima last June, they kicked their dicks right into the dirt to the tune of a 3-0 win.
It’s not just the results, but that Argentina just has a way better squad this time around. Maybe there’s still a dearth of players in Messi’s class, even in his 35-year-old stage, but forward Latauro Martinez probably can claim to be. Argentina have mostly played some form of the 4-3-3 that Messi used at Barca to become an unholy force, though he’s bounced from playing from the right and as a straight No. 10 behind two forwards. Papu Gomes has usually been on the other side of Messi and Martinez. Or it could be Man City’s hot young thing Julian Alvarez. There are options.
And there are even more in midfield, where Giovanni Lo Celso or Alexis Mac Allister or Rodrigo De Paul or Leandro Paredes live. Not only do all of these guys provide a fair amount of steel in midfield and can basically turn every lead into a mountain to climb for opponents, but all can do enough running and work to make up for the fact that without the ball, Messi isn’t going to do much moving at all. This is a bonus of the other forwards Argentina use as well. Manager Lionel Scaloni has cracked the code on this.
The draw is pretty kind as well. This is just above a nothing group, especially if Mexico carries their form from qualifying into this. There’s a potential banana skin with Denmark in the round of 16, though that could turn out to be France if they get a little silly in the group. The quarters could see a wonky Dutch side (it’s hard to see Senegal getting there without Sadio Mane) or England if they don’t win their group or some such. They’ll duck Brazil and probably France, and no one else should make them quake.
It feels like it’s set up for them, and the only pothole is if Martinez pulls a Higuain, or Messi just can’t quite conjure something at a pivotal moment thanks to his advancing years. Seeing as how he’s barely had to break a sweat with PSG all season, that doesn’t seem likely. It’s all systems go here.
They’ll have that soft landing in the group stage partially because this is one of the stinkier Mexico squads to show up for a World Cup. While they’re still on a quest for “quinto partido,” the land beyond the Round of 16 that they’ve never reached since the tourney incorporated that, this one might want to concentrate more on getting out of the group. Poland will at least feature Robert Lewandowski and Piotr Zieliński, two players better than anything Mexico has. There was a time when Raúl Jiménez would have been one of the more feared strikers in this tournament, but he’s barely getting on the field for Wolves these days and hasn’t been the same (understandably) since he suffered a skull fracture. His health may keep him off the squad altogether. Things got even worse for them when Jesús Corona was ruled out with an ankle injury. Chucky Lozano is going to have to carry almost all the water up front here.
Where the midfield isn’t old it’s unproven and lacking ideas. Mexico can have a ton of the ball and go nowhere with it, which looked pretty obvious in its four games with the US and Canada in qualifying, none of which they won. It also feels like they’re on the verge of firing Tata Martino as manager every five minutes. Maybe they pull it all together now that the big tournament is here, but it feels more like this is the final push for a total disaster. And no, even if they manage to get out of this group, there will be no fifth game waiting behind a date with France or Denmark.
Poland come into this like they do every tournament, hoping that Lewandowski and Zieliński can somehow do it all by themselves. Zieliński is at least playing for the world’s most fun team in Napoli right now and quite well, in fact. If we have to talk ourselves into Jesus Ferreira being up for this, then Poland is absolutely able to do so with Karol Świderski who banged in 10 goals for Charlotte in MLS to go with his five during qualifying. Still, Poland got a free pass in the qualifying playoffs when Russia was tossed out, meaning they only had to play one game to Sweden’s two last spring and it showed. Their match with Mexico could prove pivotal.
Saudi Arabia will have an advantage in that most of their team plays for one club in the country, Al Hilal, so they’ll have a baseline of chemistry and familiarity that a lot of other teams won’t. You saw how easily they were able to frustrate the U.S. in a friendly, and it’s not hard to see them doing the same to Mexico or Poland which lack firepower. Could easily make things interesting going down to the last day.
Manager most likely to get red-carded: Has to be Martino, who will see his firing behind every call that doesn’t go Mexico’s way. Should things go sideways he may just get an early start on his exit.
Best jerseys: Argentina might have the classic look, but have to say Mexico’s are pretty boss, especially the away ones.
Tuesday, Nov. 22 — Argentina v. Saudi Arabia (5 a.m. EST), Mexico v. Poland (11 a.m. EST)
Saturday, Nov. 26 — Poland v. Saudi Arabia (8 a.m. EST), Argentina v. Mexico (2 p.m. EST)
Wednesday, Nov. 30 — Argentina v. Poland, Mexico v. Saudi Arabia (both at 2 p.m. EST)
Who’s to blame for Atlanta Hawks turmoil — Trae Young or Nate McMillan?
Here’s a multiple choice essay question. You’ve got a blossoming superstar in Trae Young who has plateaued after some early career triumphs. Young is 24, played in a conference finals two seasons ago, but he’s also got a penchant for taking too many heat-check shots which are exhilarating to watch go in, but most observers shudder when he hits inevitable cold streaks.
However, Young has been working through soreness in his right shoulder, and during a shootaround Friday, was undergoing treatment on his shoulder according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Sam Amick, when an argument between McMillan and Young erupted.
According to The Athletic, McMillan did not approve of Young’s stance and presented him with an ultimatum: Play off the bench or don’t show up to the arena. As a result, Young was surprisingly scratched from Atlanta’s lineup before their home contest on Friday against the Denver Nuggets.
So how would you respond?
A) Nate McMillan was right to give Trae Young an ultimatum!
B) Trae Young beefs with every coach. No big deal.
C) This is about more than just one shootaround.
D) All of the above
Correct Answer: D
McMillan needed to ease up, but he and Young have never vibed on the same frequency, and it remains to be seen if McMillan’s coaching style even fits this franchise’s needs.
McMillan chalked his dispute with Young up to a misunderstanding, but leaders in a locker room shouldn’t have the communication standards of two strangers arguing in a nightclub. In a climate where organizations hand nights off to their star players at a dizzying pace, treating one of the NBA’s most high-usage stars like a problematic diva before a low-stakes early December matchup, while he receives treatment on a shoulder injury, hints at some turmoil bubbling beneath the surface.
To paraphrase the sage words of Allen Iverson, “we’re talkin’ about shootarounds. Not a game, not a game, not a game, but a shootaround.” To his credit, Young is surprisingly durable, despite being one of the league’s bantamweight guards. In five seasons, he’s missed only 23 games.
However, this is about more than just one failure to communicate. Young and McMillan are speaking different languages. Since Atlanta’s run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2021, McMillan’s connection with Young has deteriorated to the point that the Hawks have held several team meetings to address their issues. Lloyd Pierce’s record led to his firing, but discord with Young was also at the forefront of his departure.
McMillan and Young’s tenuous relationship wouldn’t be as much of a concern if the Hawks were producing wins at the pace expected of them. Their 13-10 record to start the season is strikingly similar to Atlanta’s sluggish 12-11 record through its first 23 games in 2021. To McMillan’s credit, the shorthanded Hawks are still fourth in the East and beat Denver on Friday, 117-109. However, Atlanta is also three games out of the Play-In Tournament, and the team’s ceiling has more leaks in it than when team president Travis Schlenk constructed his Dejounte Murray-Trae Young backcourt atrium.
The white-hot offense that torched opposing defenses and led the league in points per 100 possessions last season is no more. The Young-Murray Hawks have improved from the 26th-worst defense to the top-10, but at the expense of their halfcourt offense, which is now a bottom-10 unit. McMillan’s offense ranks last in 3-pointers made, is ranked 22nd in effective field-goal percentage, which weighs 3-pointers more heavily and they’re missing the je ne sais quoi that made them an All-League Pass team.
Atlanta’s Kevin Huerter trade illustrates how the Hawks front office and their coaching staff have mismanaged their roster. Soon after the offseason of Dejounte Murray, Atlanta shipped Huerter, 24, to Sacramento in exchange for 33-year-old Justin Holiday, 29-year-old Mo Harkless and a 2024 first-round pick. The Hawks envisioned Huerter evolving into Klay Thompson Lite, playing off of Young, but more importantly they seemed to be taking a chance on Sacramento stumbling so they could inherit a lottery pick.
Instead, Huerter has reached new heights playing in Sacramento’s more decentralized offensive system that ranks second in the NBA in assists and more closely resembles Golden State’s than Atlanta’s Trae Young central attack.
Back to Huerter. In Sacramento, Mike Brown has channeled Huerter’s brilliance into a battery powering the NBA’s second-highest scoring team. He’s the NBA’s most frequent scorer off of handoffs and his two-man game with Domantas Sabonis has allowed him to flex his entire range of skills. Starting alongside Fox, Huerter is averaging a career-high 15.5 points per game, shooting better than 42 percent behind the arc and taking nearly seven 3s per game. He wasn’t getting those looks in Atlanta.
After getting bagged up by the Miami Heat in a first-round sweep last season, Atlanta didn’t just need a personnel change, they needed a cleanse. Trae Young needs a shooting profile that is more similar to Steph’s than James Harden’s. Young’s struggles are a microcosm of what ails the Hawks. They aren’t putting their offensive stars in the best position to score. Atlanta is heavily reliant on predictable isolations and runs more pick-and-rolls than all but one team. Even with De’Aaron Fox at the point, Sacramento has gone the Golden State route by running fewer pick-and-rolls than any team after ranking fifth during their abysmal 2021-22 campaign.
Last season, 14.2 percent of Young’s 2-point field goals were assisted on and 22.3 percent of his 3-balls were. Young has improved slightly, but only to 15 percent assisted 2-pointers and 38 percent of his 3-point makes.
Curry, the most efficient off-the-dribble shooter in league history, is scoring 36.5 percent of his 2-point field goals off of assists, nearly three times Young’s rate. On triples? 58 percent of the time. Getting Young easier buckets so he’s not wearing himself out would be a path to assure McMillan’s future employment in Atlanta.
How Schlenk navigates their plans to trade John Collins will determine Atlanta’s short-term success, but the hands on McMillan’s clock are approaching midnight. Former Warriors assistant Mike Brown unlocked the peak-Red Velvet version of Huerter that Atlanta thought they were getting. Atlanta upgraded the roster, but not the staff that deploys it. If the tumult continues in Atlanta, they may want to consider taking a bite off the Golden State coaching tree.
Japan vs Croatia LIVE! World Cup 2022 match stream, latest team news, lineups, TV, prediction
Japan this afternoon will look to add another famous scalp to an already remarkable World Cup run when they face 2018 finalists Croatia. With Spain and Germany already put to the sword, a place in the quarter-finals is now up for grabs. The Samurai Blue have never made it to the last eight.
Croatia are the seasoned veterans, though, with a midfield of Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic and the versatile Ivan Perisic patrolling the flank, meaning little with phase them at the Al Janoub Stadium today. Head coach Zlatko Dalic says his country continue to perform punch above their weight and a last-eight spot would be just their third in history.
The winner will face the victor between Brazil and South Korea, who play later today. Follow the game LIVE below with our dedicated match blog, featuring expert insight and analysis from Nizaar Kinsella at Al Janoub Stadium.
Croatia team news: Defenders taken ill
For Croatia, left-back Borna Sosa could be sidelined due to illness, while defender Josip Stanisic has a muscle issue. Otherwise manager Zlatko Dalic chould have a full squad to choose from.
Japan team news: Tomiyasu looking to start
Hiroki Sakai and Takehiro Tomiyasu should both be fit for Japan today, although Ko Itakura is suspended and there is an injury doubt over Takefusa Kubo.
How to watch
TV channel: In the UK, the match will be televised free-to-air and live on BBC One, with coverage beginning at 2.30pm.
Live stream: Fans can also catch the game live online via the BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport website.
Good afternoon and welcome to the Evening Standard’s LIVE coverage of the World Cup last-16 clash between Japan and Croatia.
Japan have never made it to the quarter-finals, while Croatia are looking to at least emulate their runners-up spot from four years ago.
Kick-off at the Al Janoub Stadium is at 3pm GMT. Stick with us.
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