Brazil v Argentina: Messi's supporting cast stepping up

By Sports Desk July 02, 2019

As Argentina's Copa America campaign spluttered during its opening stages, familiar unflattering observations were made.

Once again, the great Lionel Messi was being let down on his quest for an elusive international honour by a team performing in an abject manner both individually and collectively.

A 2-0 loss to Colombia and 1-1 draw against Paraguay, where Messi levelled from the penalty spot, had strong echoes of Argentina's shambolic World Cup efforts in Russia last year.

But Lionel Scaloni's men have found their feet to stay in with a shout of glory – back-to-back 2-0 wins over Qatar and Venezuela setting up Tuesday's mouthwatering semi-final showdown against bitter rivals and hosts Brazil in Belo Horizonte.

Further improvement is likely to be required to see off the Selecao, but a more settled line-up has shown glimpses of the undoubted talent at the disposal of rookie coach Scaloni.

Perhaps most significantly, Messi has been well shy of his usual excellence in the past two games, forcing these standout members of the supporting cast and others to step up in a manner many have struggled to do so over recent years.

Lautaro Martinez

Martinez earned a start against Paraguay and survived the subsequent change of personnel and formation to a 4-4-2 diamond. Paired with Sergio Aguero in attack ahead of Messi at number 10, the Inter youngster struck early versus Qatar and Venezuela to settle La Albiceleste's ever-fragile nerves. The striker now has six goals in 10 international appearances and, crucially, carries none of the baggage of recent failures that many in Scaloni's squad remain lumbered with.  

Franco Armani

Thrust into an Argentina debut after Willy Caballero's World Cup horror show against Croatia, Armani appeared ill at ease with international football in Russia. But the 32-year-old River Plate goalkeeper secured the second Copa Libertadores of his career last December and has operated with impressive assurance in Brazil. Without his penalty save against Paraguay, Scaloni's men would probably have already packed their bags. Armani has proved an increasingly calm presence behind a still-suspect back four – his handling against Venezuela was superb.

Rodrigo de Paul

Angel Di Maria had to wait for a late cameo in the round of 16 to claim his 100th Argentina cap and the Paris Saint-Germain star's delay on reaching his landmark owes much to De Paul's emergence. The Udinese winger's verve after being introduced for an abject Di Maria at half-time was arguably the sole positive against Colombia and he has since tucked in on the side of Scaloni's diamond with committed and technically assured performances.

Leandro Paredes

Like many of his performances since joining PSG from Zenit in January, Paredes' outings for his country have often underwhelmed. But he excelled against Venezuela, with De Paul's industry and Marcos Acuna's pleasing tenacity allowing the 25-year-old's exquisite passing range to come to the fore – something Argentina lacked from the base of midfield during the arduous final knockings of Javier Mascherano's international career. Paredes' set-piece deliveries also caused plenty of problems at the Maracana as he shared dead-ball duties with Messi.

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    Andrew Luck's shock retirement has thrust Jacoby Brissett into the limelight for the Indianapolis Colts.

    Before Luck announced his decision there had been talk of Brissett potentially being traded, though such suggestions were shut down by the Colts' front office.

    Now he is the man tasked with leading Frank Reich's offense and will have an extremely tough act to follow after Luck finished his fine career with a 2018 season that saw him throw for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns.

    But who is Brissett, and does he have what it takes to fill the void? Here we take a look at the Colts' new starting quarterback.


    When was Brissett drafted?

    Brissett entered the NFL as a third-round pick of the New England Patriots in the 2016 draft after a pair of stellar college seasons at NC State. After transferring from Florida, Brissett threw for 5,268 yards, 43 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions for the Wolfpack.

    How did the Colts acquire him?

    The Colts sent wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to the Patriots to land Brissett in a trade in September 2017, giving them another option under center with Luck's status still up in the air as he recovered from surgery on a separated shoulder.

    What is his NFL experience?

    Indianapolis will have been convinced to trade for Brissett partially by his performance in relief of the suspended Tom Brady and injured Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 3 of the 2016 season. Brissett led the Patriots to a 27-0 victory and, with Brady guiding them to a Lombardi Trophy following his return, left New England with a Super Bowl ring.

    He replaced Scott Tolzien in Week 1 of the 2017 season as the Colts were thrashed 46-9 by the Los Angeles Rams. From there he started the remaining 15 games and, though he only managed to lead a poor Colts team to four victories, Brissett emerged from the campaign with plenty of credit. He threw for 3,098 yards and 13 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He also ran for 260 yards and four touchdowns.

    Can he fill the void?

    "Jacoby Brissett is a winning football player in this league. Jacoby Brissett is a rare, rare leader. He is. He's a rare human being, man. That locker room loves Jacoby Brissett. They love him."

    Those were the words of Colts general manager Chris Ballard following Luck's retirement, making it clear Brissett will have the faith of the locker room.

    But is he good enough to ensure the Colts remain contenders post-Luck?

    There is no doubt he has the arm. Brissett has no problem throwing the long ball and, when Luck was still struggling with his shoulder last year, was brought on for a late Hail Mary attempt against the Philadelphia Eagles.

    In his 2017 season, Brissett also demonstrated the ability to go through his progressions and hang tough in the pocket even as it collapsed around him.

    He may not have to worry too much about the pocket disintegrating in his second go-around as starter. The Colts have invested heavily in the offensive line, in an effort to protect Luck from the injuries that ultimately brought an early end to his career, and 2018 draft picks Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith have done an excellent job of shoring things up in the trenches.

    Luck was sacked only 18 times in 2018, with Brissett having suffered 52 a year earlier.

    Brissett is a superior runner to Luck and the damage he can do with his legs adds another dimension to an offense featuring plenty of talent.

    In addition to an improving O-Line, Brissett has the benefit of one of the better offensive minds in the game in Reich, as well as an impressive array of pass-catching options including T.Y. Hilton, tight end Eric Ebron and electric rookie Parris Campbell.

    The Colts have done a tremendous job of putting Brissett in a position to succeed. For him to do so he will need to show greater consistency and accuracy.

    Completion percentage is not the ultimate barometer of the latter, but Brissett completed only 58.8 per cent of his passes in 2017. Luck's percentage was under 60 only twice in his six seasons.

    However, with Reich at the helm he has an ideal coach to help him realise his potential. Without Luck the Colts may not be the favourites to win the AFC South, but Brissett is capable of keeping them firmly in contention.

  • Andrew Luck retires: The quarterback's NFL career in numbers Andrew Luck retires: The quarterback's NFL career in numbers

    Andrew Luck rocked the NFL on Saturday when he confirmed he was retiring.

    The 29-year-old, who has battled injuries since entering the league with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, said at a press conference that his problems had "taken my joy of this game away".

    One of the most hyped quarterbacks to enter the NFL in recent years, former first overall pick Luck certainly lived up to the billing when he was able to get on the field.

    Here, we take a look at Luck's career in numbers.

    171 - The former Stanford Cardinal tossed 171 touchdowns with the Colts. In NFL history, only Aaron Rodgers and Dan Marino threw more in their first 86 regular-season games.

    40 - Of those 171, 40 came in 2014 when Luck led the league in touchdown passes. Only eight men have thrown for more in a single season.

    53-33-0 - Indianapolis won 53 of the 86 regular-season games Luck started. The Colts won two AFC South titles in 2013 and 2014 and made the playoffs on four occasions in the Luck era.

    4 - Luck was named to the Pro Bowl four times and last season he won the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award.

    20 - There were 20 game-winning drives in Luck's career. Only Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford have had more since 2012.

    28 - The Colts were 28 points down to the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs when Luck engineered what was, at the time, the second-biggest postseason comeback of all time on January 4, 2014.

    174 - Luck was sacked on 174 occasions in his career, with 156 of those coming in his first five years as a pro and 41 in his rookie campaign.

    4,374 - The record 4,374 yards Luck threw as a rookie remains the leading mark of any first-year quarterback.

    11 - Luck played the Tennessee Titans on 11 occasions in his career. The Colts won every single game. 

  • Andrew Luck retires: Five things affected by Colts QB stepping away in 2019 season Andrew Luck retires: Five things affected by Colts QB stepping away in 2019 season

    When a star quarterback retires, things change.

    Andrew Luck announced on Saturday that he is retiring from the NFL following the Indianapolis Colts' 27-17 preseason loss to the Chicago Bears, so just about everything is going to be different in 2019.

    OK, that is a bit of a hyperbolic statement, but what is true is Luck's retirement does have a ripple effect on the NFL this upcoming season.

    So, what are those effects? We have five for you.


    Five effects of Luck's retirement on the NFL in 2019

    Brissett gets a shot at being a franchise quarterback

    Is Jacoby Brissett a franchise quarterback? That is unclear. But one thing is for certain, he is going to get a chance to be one in Indianapolis. There is a reason the Colts would not trade Brissett this offseason even if they were offered high draft picks. Indianapolis like him. Now Brissett is going to have a chance to prove he can lead this team better than he did when he did not have a ton of time to prepare in 2017 and had a bad roster around him. This is Brissett's chance. We will see if he takes advantage.

    Texans, Jaguars can breathe easier

    The Houston Texans were likely the favourites to win the AFC South coming into 2019, but the Colts were certainly a threat considering Luck would be two years removed from the shoulder surgery which cost him the entire 2017 season. But the Jacksonville Jaguars' addition of Nick Foles at quarterback had to put them in the conversation before, and now that Luck is gone, they have to have the second-best odds, don't they? But either way, the Texans and Jaguars have to feel better about getting wins against the Colts now and they could easily see two more victories on their schedules just with this retirement.

    Mahomes' path to a second-straight MVP got easier

    While Luck did not finish second in the MVP voting last season, one had to figure he would be firmly in the conversation to start this year and possibly the main competition for Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes. Now that competition is gone and Mahomes will likely have to fend off aging quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger and maybe a younger guy like Carson Wentz or Baker Mayfield. But Luck was going to be far away from his injury and would have likely been even better than he was last year with a more solid team around him. Mahomes might not be happy, but he has to feel good about his MVP chances again.

    Browns, Ravens, Steelers will be happy come playoff time

    The Colts likely would have earned a wild-card spot this season with Luck at the helm. They still might. But without Luck it will be tougher to get there, and as good as Brissett might be, Luck would probably be a surer thing in a playoff scenario. The Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to be wild-card round competitors and not having to face Luck there will be nice. Again, maybe Brissett will be awesome when he gets there, but we know Luck has been good in the wild-card game, so looking ahead these teams have to be happy.

    Patriots' path again gets easier

    The New England Patriots have whipped up on the Colts in the playoffs but having Luck at 100 percent with a better defense made Indianapolis a tougher out in the playoffs, especially in year two with Frank Reich at the helm. Now Luck is out, and the playoffs may have completely changed. The Patriots are the favourites to win the AFC because they should be. The Chiefs are great, but until they beat the Patriots in the playoffs the conference goes through them. Now, the path to the Super Bowl looks ever so slightly easier.

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