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Lionel Messi pledges ‘fight’ as Argentina eye World Cup

June 16, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi vowed to “keep fighting” as Argentina attempt to overcome their World Cup qualifying struggles and seal their place in next year’s tournament in Russia.

Argentina

The two-time world champions are fifth in South American qualifying, with only the top four teams guaranteed a place in the 2018 World Cup.

“365 days left to Russia, let’s keep fighting for the dream!” Messi wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday, as Argentina bid to avoid missing the finals for the first time since 1970.

Arch-rivals Brazil became the first side to qualify for Russia in March, but Argentina trail fourth-placed Chile by a point with four matches left to play.

Jorge Sampaoli’s side would face a two-legged play-off against the winners of the Oceania region — New Zealand or Solomon Islands — should they finish fifth.

Argentina, without the suspended Messi, crashed to a 2-0 defeat in Bolivia in their most recent qualifier, but the Barcelona star’s four-match ban for swearing at an assistant referee has since been overturned by FIFA.

He can now return when qualifying resumes in August with a clash against Uruguay, followed by matches against Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador.

Argentina have won only one of eight World Cup 2018 qualifiers played without Messi, compared to five out of six won with him on the pitch.

Barcelona eye another famous comeback with semis in sight

April 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Little over a month after producing the greatest comeback in Champions League history, Barcelona need another special turnaround as they face Juventus in the second leg of their quarter-final on Wednesday.

Barcelona

Luis Enrique’s side were taken apart in the first leg in Turin, losing 3-0 to a Juve team inspired by Paulo Dybala, who scored twice.

In the last 16 they became the first team ever to overturn a 4-0 deficit when they beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in the return at the Camp Nou, so fans are hoping for a similar “remuntada” this time.

“We are going to take as many risks as we need to the point that we could go out with eight strikers, as we have nothing to lose,” said Luis Enrique after Saturday’s 3-2 defeat of Real Sociedad.

The Barcelona coach also called for supporters “to have faith in these players who have won everything. This is a squad of champions.”

But he added: “The thing is that we are used to always eating beluga caviar. That can’t go on forever.”

Barca welcome back midfielder Sergio Busquets from suspension, while Juve are hopeful Dybala will be ready after he came off in the 2-0 weekend win at Pescara with a sprained ankle.

“We have four days and we need to be optimistic,” declared coach Massimiliano Allegri.

In contrast to their fierce rivals, Real Madrid are very much on course for a semi-final berth after their 2-1 win away to Bayern Munich last week.

The sides clash at the Santiago Bernabeu in Tuesday’s second leg with the Germans looking to become just the third side to overturn a first-leg home defeat to win a Champions League tie.

Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti has fitness concerns with leading scorer Robert Lewandowski hopeful of returning from a shoulder injury.

Defenders Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng are also fighting to be fit, while Javi Martinez is suspended.

“We go to Madrid well aware of the fact that nothing is impossible,” Thomas Mueller told Bundesliga.com.

“We’re annoyed any time we don’t win, but we have our own way of playing. No matter what problems or injuries we have to deal with, we’re always able to put a strong team out there on the pitch.”

Gareth Bale is struggling to shake off a calf problem for Real, who have lost just twice in 12 past home meetings with Bayern.

Borussia Dortmund go to Monaco still shaken by the events of last week, when the first leg between the clubs was postponed by 24 hours following the bomb attack on the German team’s bus en route to the game.

Dortmund went on to lose 3-2 to the French league leaders but morale was lifted as they got back to winning ways in the Bundesliga at the weekend, beating Eintracht Frankfurt 3-1.

After that game, the Dortmund players paid tribute to defender Marc Bartra by holding his number five shirt aloft as they celebrated in front of their fans.

Spanish international Bartra had earlier been released from hospital after having surgery on a broken wrist suffered in the attack.

“This gesture shows how important the things off the field are to us at this moment, and that Marc gets better soon and that we are all still here,” said Dortmund captain Marcel Schmelzer.

Monaco, looking to become the first French side in the Champions League semi-finals since Lyon seven years ago, are missing the banned Fabinho as well as Djibril Sidibe, who is recovering from appendicitis.

Leicester City have defensive concerns as they look to turn around a 1-0 deficit when they host last season’s runners-up Atletico Madrid.

Robert Huth is suspended and the Foxes are hoping Wes Morgan can return from a back injury as the English champions look to extend their run in Europe. Atletico have French striker Kevin Gameiro back from a groin injury.

Brazil book FIFA World Cup berth, Argentina tumble

March 30, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Brazil became the first team to qualify for the World Cup on Tuesday after beating Paraguay to clinch an eighth consecutive victory as Argentina’s campaign stumbled after the shock suspension of Lionel Messi.

Brazil

Five-time champions Brazil had been left waiting in suspense after goals from Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Marcelo handed them a 3-0 win over the Paraguayans at Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians.

But Uruguay’s upset 2-1 defeat to Peru in the day’s final South American qualifier combined with other results meant Brazil are mathematically guaranteed a place at next year’s finals in Russia.

The qualification completes an astonishing turnaround for Brazil, who less than a year ago were in crisis after taking only nine points from six games.

That run of results had left the Brazilians outside the qualifying places in sixth place.

The further embarrassment of a first round exit at last year’s Copa America Centenario only deepened the sense of despondency.

However the sacking of former coach Dunga and the appointment of former Corinthians coach Tite was the catalyst for a Brazilian resurgence.

That revival saw Brazil take maximum points from their next eight qualifying games, leaving them nine points clear on Tuesday with four games left.

“When I look at my family — the players — and when we talk to the fans and see how happy they are, that’s when you think ‘I’m part of something very special,'” Tite said after Brazil’s qualification was confirmed.

Against Paraguay, Brazil were already in party mode, with Coutinho opening the scoring on 34 minutes following a deft one-two with China-based midfielder Paulinho.

Neymar had a chance to make it 2-0 in the 53rd minute from the penalty spot only to see his kick saved by Anthony Silva.

On 64 minutes Neymar doubled Brazil’s tally, collecting the ball deep inside his own half and setting off on a surging run down the left flank.

Neymar’s dribble ended with him curling in a shot which took a slight deflection on its way into the Paraguayan goal. Real Madrid defender Marcelo added a late third to seal Brazil’s win.

While Brazil celebrated, Argentina and Messi were left digesting another stumble in their progress towards Russia as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat in La Paz.

Argentina had been rocked just hours before kick-off after confirmation Messi had been hit with a four-match ban following a ruling from disciplinary chiefs at world governing body FIFA in Zurich.

The Barcelona superstar was stunned after being suspended for four of Argentina’s five remaining World Cup qualification matches for swearing at an official in a game against Chile last week.

Messi’s suspension left Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza forced to make a hasty reshuffle to his starting line-up, bringing in Atletico Madrid’s Angel Correa in attack while leaving Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero on the bench.

But Argentina, clearly struggling in the thin air of La Paz, which is 3,600 metres (11,800 feet) above sea level, were well beaten at the Estadio Hernando Siles.

Bolivia, desperate for three points, tore into Argentina from the opening whistle, spending long periods camped around their opponents’ area.

Juan Carlos Arce opened the scoring for Bolivia on 31 minutes, heading in Pablo Escobar’s inviting cross before Marcelo Martins doubled the home side’s lead early the second half.

The defeat leaves Argentina languishing just outside the automatic qualifying places following results elsewhere Tuesday.

Chile moved up to fourth place with a 3-1 win over Venezuela in Santiago, Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez opening the scoring with a stunning early free-kick. Esteban Paredes scored twice for Chile to give the host a 3-0 lead before Salomon Rondon pulled a goal back for Venezuela.

In Quito, Real Madrid star James Rodriguez scored one goal and set up another for Juan Cuadrado as Colombia beat Ecuador 2-0.

Brazil on brink, Messi revives Argentina in World Cup qualifiers

March 24, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Brazil thrashed Uruguay to move to the brink of the World Cup finals on Thursday as Lionel Messi got Argentina’s faltering qualification campaign back on track with the only goal to sink Chile.

Messi

A superb hat-trick from China-based midfielder Paulinho powered Brazil to a 4-1 drubbing of the Uruguayans in Montevideo to leave the five-time world champions all-but-certain of a place at next year’s finals in Russia.

The Brazilians now lead the 10-team round-robin competition by seven points after their latest win.

The top four teams in the standings qualify automatically and with only five rounds remaining, it would take a freakish set of results to deny Brazil.

Uruguay had taken the lead after only nine minutes when Brazil goalkeeper Alisson brought down Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani for a penalty.

Cavani got to his feet and drilled the spot-kick beyond the Brazilian goalkeeper to put Uruguay 1-0 up.

But Paulinho produced a thunderbolt 10 minutes later, uncorking a screamer into the top corner from 25 yards to level at 1-1.

The midfielder then stabbed home Philippe Coutinho’s shot in the 51st minute to make it 2-1.

Barcelona superstar Neymar added a third with a sublime chip in the 75th minute to effectively settle the contest.

Paulinho completed his hat-trick in injury time, turning in a low cross with his chest to cap a fine display.

Uruguay, who were missing the suspended Luis Suarez, remain in second place in the standings.

“To come here and win by any score is a great result,” Brazil coach Tite said afterwards. “Playing in this stadium and beating Uruguay is difficult for anyone.”

Uruguay skipper Diego Godin said the final scoreline was not an accurate reflection of the game.

“We trained well, we looked strong,” the Atletico Madrid defender said. “It’s a bitter result. We had chances. This doesn’t reflect the game.”

“But this is a wake-up call.”

In Buenos Aires, Argentina had entered their clash with Chile desperately needing to take all three points to revive their campaign.

And captain Messi duly delivered when it mattered as Argentina avenged last year’s Copa America Centenario final defeat to the Chileans with a 1-0 win.

Messi stroked home his penalty on 16 minutes after veteran Chile defender Jose Fuenzalida brought down Angel Di Maria with a clumsy challenge.

Last year, Messi was left distraught after missing his penalty in the shootout at the Copa America Centenario in New York.

But the diminutive maestro made no mistake on Thursday, drilling his spot-kick beyond former Barcelona teammate Claudio Bravo to secure a vital three points for the two-time world champions.

Argentina finished the game on the back foot as Chile swarmed forward in search of an equaliser — a successful rearguard action that delighted coach Edgardo Bauza.

“It was great that we won against a good team, but for me the best thing was the way we fought,” Bauza said.

The win leaves Argentina in third place overall in the 10-team qualifying competition with 22 points from 13 games.

But the defeat means two-time reigning South American champions Chile are still struggling to qualify for Russia.

The Chileans remain outside the automatic qualification places.

- Colombia back in hunt -

Colombia, the 2014 World Cup quarter-finalists, boosted their chances of qualification with a 1-0 win over Bolivia in Barranquilla.

Real Madrid star James Rodriguez bundled in the rebound from his own late penalty to claim the points.

Rodriguez rammed home his finish at the second attempt after Bolivia goalkeeper Carlos Lampe had saved the playmaker’s spotkick on 83 minutes.

Until Rodriguez’s late winner, it looked as if Bolivia had done enough to earn a point, defending in depth and frustrating the hosts at every turn.

But Bolivia’s luck ran out when Cristian Coimbra brought down winger Juan Cuadrado with a clumsy challenge to give Rodriguez his chance for glory.

Barcelona rue missed chance despite Atletico lead

February 2, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona coach Luis Enrique admitted missed chances leave his side with still some work to do to reach a fourth consecutive Copa del Rey final despite taking a 2-1 semi-final, first leg lead over Atletico Madrid.

Barcelona

Sensational strikes from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi had Barca cruising at half-time at the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday.

However, Antoine Griezmann pulled a goal back for an inspired Atletico after the break before Neymar blasted over a huge chance to restore Barca’s two-goal lead.

“If we had been more efficient with the quality we have in this team, we could have taken our chances better and had a different second leg,” said Enrique.

Barca will also be without Neymar for the return leg on Tuesday as he picked up his third yellow card in the Cup this season late on.

“We knew we had to score here,” said Suarez.

“That was important and we got two, but it is not at all over.”

It was a tale of two halves as Barca dominated in the first 45 minutes with Suarez’s sensational solo run and finish after seven minutes added to by Messi’s thunderous 20-yard strike.

“I think we started the tie very well, knowing how difficult it is to play here at the Calderon,” added Enrique.

“We made sure they couldn’t create any attacks, we kept the ball in their half, created a lot of chances and were very efficient.

“In the second-half, given the result, Atletico had to attack. They pressed us much more and caused a lot more problems.

“But it would be naive or ridiculous to think you can come here and not suffer.”

Messi was once again a class apart as he constantly pulled the Atletico defence apart on top of firing home his 30th goal in 29 games this season.

“The big games are when you see the best Leo Messi,” added Enrique.

“He showed us his full repetoire. His dribbling, generating superiority in midfield, giving assists and scoring goals. There are few new superlatives for Messi.”

Four previous two-legged ties between these sides over the past three seasons had been split two apiece.

And Atletico looked far more like the side that Diego Simeone has made a serial contender for trophies over the past five years after the introduction of Fernando Torres at half-time.

“We spoke at half-time and I think in the second-half we got close to the team we have always been,” said Simeone.

“I am left with that positive feeling. We were close to a draw, we fronted up against all the difficulties we faced in the first-half.”

However, for all his achievements, Simeone is yet to win at the Camp Nou as Atletico boss and is aware the odds are very much against Los Rojiblancos reaching the final.

“I don’t know what percentage chance we have,” he added.

“Even if it is 20 percent, we will give everything we have to make that 20 percent count.”

Barcelona, Sevilla maintain pressure on Madrid

January 24, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were all on target as Barcelona shrugged off the loss of the injured Sergio Busquets to remain just two points behind La Liga leaders Real Madrid with a 4-0 win at Eibar on Sunday.

Barcelona

Sevilla separate the giants of Spanish football in second, just a point behind Madrid, after twice coming from behind to edge a seven-goal thriller 4-3 at rock-bottom Osasuna.

However, Real Madrid also have a game in hand over their title rivals.

Barca’s visit to the Basque Country was only eight minutes in when Busquets had to be carried off with ankle ligament damage after a dangerous challenge from Gonzalo Escalante that went unpunished.

“The good news about Sergio Busquets is that it doesn’t look as serious as we first thought,” Barca boss Luis Enrique told Spanish TV station Movistar.

The visitors were briefly unsettled as a fine save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen prevented Adrian Gonzalez giving Eibar a shock lead at the tiny 6,200 capacity Ipurua.

Yet, there was little doubt over the outcome once Denis Suarez, who had replaced Busquets, drilled home his first Barca goal into the far corner from outside the box on the half hour mark.

Neymar missed a one-on-one and Luis Suarez hit the post as Barca squandered a series of chances to kill off the game before half-time.

However, Messi doubled their lead just six minutes into the second-half when he swept home Luis Suarez’s cross for his 28th goal in 26 games this season.

And Luis Suarez matched his strike partner as La Liga’s top scorer this season with 15 when he robbed Florian Lejeune before slotting home at the near post 22 minutes from time.

Neymar hadn’t scored from open play since October, but brought that run to an end by slotting home Aleix Vidal’s low cross in stoppage time.

“A positive run of results means everything flows better, the players have more confidence,” added Enrique after a fourth straight win.

“But we are still far off where we want to be.”

Sevilla scored twice in the final five minutes to end Real Madrid’s 40-game unbeaten run in all competitions last weekend and have now won five of the seven La Liga games when they have conceded first this season.

“The team did some good things and made mistakes, but from start to finish looked to win the game,” said Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli.

“To finish the first half of the season with a record number of points (42) and be second fills us with excitement for what is to come.”

Sergio Leon gave Osasuna a shock early lead before an unusual hat-trick from Sevilla captain Vicente Iborra levelled at 2-2 as he twice equalised either side of an own goal to restore Osasuna’s lead.

Osasuna were infuriated Franco Vazquez’s vital third goal for Sevilla was allowed to stand despite a push on Oriol Riera 10 minutes from time.

Pablo Sarabia’s fine left-footed shot from outside the area sealed the points, but there was still time for Osasuna to pull another goal back when Kenan Kodro headed in from close range.

Atletico Madrid lost further ground on the top three as they needed a spectacular Antoine Griezmann equaliser 10 minutes from time to secure a 2-2 draw at Athletic Bilbao.

Diego Simeone’s men are now eight points back on Real Madrid.

The visitors got off to the perfect start when Koke’s cross towards Griezmann evaded everyone and flew into the far corner after just three minutes.

However, Atletico were punished for trying to sit on their lead when Inigo Lekue smashed home an equaliser three minutes before half-time.

Athletic then went in front as former Atletico favourite Raul Garcia crossed for Oscar de Marcos to head home.

Griezmann had already had one spectacular finish ruled out by the offside flag, but the French international continued his fine form with a rasping low drive from 25 yards to at least salvage a point for Atletico.

Real Sociedad move level on points with Atletico in fourth as Juanmi’s towering header 18 minutes from time handed them a 1-0 win over Celta Vigo.

Keep calm on Messi deal, says Barca coach

January 14, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona need to avoid a growing sense of hysteria felt by fans, fellow players and media over protracted negotiations to extend superstar striker Lionel Messi’s contract, his coach Luis Enrique said Friday.

Messi

With just 18 months left on the 29-year-old Argentine’s deal, Enrique insisted there is no need to panic.

“We have to remain calm,” Luis Enrique said, suggesting the club would not be rushed or panicked.

“We’re not getting involved in that,” the coach insisted amid speculation the player may eventually move on.

“The rhythm and the way this is worked out will be dictated by the club and Leo Messi himself.”

“I don’t know about numbers, I know about football. We all want to enjoy watching Messi here for many more years, nothing else matters for me.”

Despite posting a record turnover of 679 million euros ($719 million) last season, a series of expensive new contracts for the likes of Neymar and Luis Suarez mean Barcelona are close to overstepping the 70 percent limit of turnover spent on salaries imposed by UEFA’s financial fair-play laws.

Meanwhile, Enrique hailed Suarez’s achievement of reaching 100 goals in 120 Barcelona appearances, a landmark reached in the 3-1 Copa del Rey win over Athletic Bilbao in midweek.

“100 goals in 120 games! My God! Incredible!”, said Enrique ahead of Saturday’s match against Las Palmas.

Ronaldo caps dream year with fourth Ballon d’Or

December 13, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Cristiano Ronaldo called it “a dream come true again” as he won his fourth Ballon d’Or on Monday to get one over his nemesis Lionel Messi for the title of best player in the world.

Ronaldo

It was the perfect ending to another fantastic year for the Real Madrid star, who won the Champions League for the second time in three seasons and then led Portugal to their first major title at Euro 2016 — albeit he went off early injured and in tears in the surprise victory over France.

As has been the case for almost a decade now, the 31-year-old’s main rival was Messi — but the Barcelona and Argentine maestro had to relinquish the crown after a less-than-stellar year for club and country by his lofty standards.

Ronaldo is now one Ballon d’Or behind Messi, who was second this time with French striker Antoine Griezmann third.

Never one to play down his achievements, Ronaldo was spotted midweek in training having dyed his hair gold in anticipation and several media outlets published a photo earlier on Monday appearing to confirm he was the winner, before organisers France Football magazine made the official announcement.

“For me it’s a great honour to receive my fourth Ballon d’Or. The emotion is like the first one — it’s a dream come true again,” Ronaldo, who is at the Club World Cup in Japan, told L’Equipe TV.

“I never thought in my mind to win four times the Ballon d’Or, I’m so pleased and so happy.

“I have to thank all my team-mates, the national team, Real Madrid, all the people, the players who helped me to win this individual trophy.

“I want to enjoy this moment because it’s not easy to win this.”

Fourth was Luis Suarez and fifth his fellow Barcelona attacker Neymar, with Ronaldo’s Welsh team-mate Gareth Bale sixth.

Ronaldo was the firm favourite to win, but the prestigious prize comes at a time when the prolific forward has generated negative headlines in the past week over accusations of tax evasion.

Denying any wrongdoing, he responded by publishing his financial records last week, showing last year he earned a whopping 227 million euros ($240 million).

“You believe I am worried? He who owes nothing, fears nothing,” Ronaldo told broadcaster RTP at the time.

Ronaldo, the highest-paid sportsman in the world, first won the Ballon d’Or in 2008 after Premier League and Champions League triumphs with Manchester United.

But it was only in 2013 that he added his second — Messi had hogged it before then — and Ronaldo made it a hat-trick the following year.

United were quick to offer their congratulations on Twitter, calling a fourth Ballon d’Or “incredible”.

Real said Ronaldo, who last month signed a bumper new five-year contract, had enjoyed “a sensational year”.

The first Ballon d’Or was won by Stanley Matthews, at the time with Blackpool, who beat Alfredo Di Stefano for the inaugural title in 1956.

The Ballon d’Or is decided by a vote of 173 journalists.

Messi magic sparks Argentina, Brazil march on

November 16, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi produced a magical display to get Argentina’s World Cup qualification back on track Tuesday as Brazil notched their sixth consecutive victory to put one foot in the 2018 finals in Russia.

Messi

Messi curled home a stunning 30-yard free-kick and set up goals for Lucas Pratto and Angel Di Maria in a 3-0 win over Colombia in San Juan.

The victory elevated Argentina into the qualifying places after a disastrous run of results which saw them take just two points from their previous four games.

But the feelgood factor generated by the result was overshadowed by a media boycott imposed by a furious Messi and his Argentina team-mates after the final whistle.

Messi said the Albiceleste’s players were incensed by a claim made by an Argentine journalist that forward Ezequiel Lavezzi had been caught smoking marijuana in the camp.

Lavezzi, who was not included on the substitutes bench against Colombia, has angrily denied the claims.

“We have made the decision not to talk to the press anymore, obviously you know why,” said Messi, who has an often tense relationship with Argentina’s media.

“There were a lot of accusations, a lot of disrespect, and the accusations they made against ‘Pocho’ (Lavezzi) are very serious.

“We know that most of you guys don’t play that game of disrespect. We can be criticised if we lose, or win, or if we play well or badly. But this is getting into personal lives. If we don’t put a stop to it now, we’ll never stop it.”

Tuesday’s win left Argentina in fifth spot in the 10-team standings, with 19 points from 12 games. The top four sides qualify automatically for the 2018 finals while the fifth-placed team goes into a play-off with the first-placed team from the Oceania zone.

Colombia meanwhile slipped to sixth place following the defeat, one point behind Argentina.

While Argentina have made hard work of qualification so far, Brazil appear to be coasting towards Russia.

Only a miraculous sequence of results is likely to deny them an automatic qualifying place following Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Peru in Lima.

Manchester City-bound teenager Gabriel Jesus was the hero once more, scoring one goal and laying on another for Renato Augusto to give Brazil a sixth consecutive win under new coach Tite.

The result left Brazil four points clear at the top of the standings with 27 points from 12 games.

In qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, 28 points was enough to guarantee automatic qualification.

With six games left, Brazil should be safe with something to spare.

In Santiago meanwhile, Chile continued their recovery with a hard-fought 3-1 win over Uruguay.

Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez was the hero, scoring twice for the Chileans in the second half after Eduardo Vargas had cancelled out Edinson Cavani’s first-half opener for Uruguay.

Sanchez and Chile had risked the wrath of Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger after playing despite injuring a hamstring during training last week.

Wenger had expressed fear Chile had made a “suicidal” decision by playing Sanchez after the injury.

But the in-form striker showed no sign of ill-health with two well-taken goals to seal a crucial three points.

Manchester City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo saved a late penalty from Luis Suarez as the two-time Copa America winners hung on for the win.

In other games Tuesday, Bolivia jolted Paraguay with a 1-0 win in La Paz while Venezuela slipped to the bottom of the standings after Ecuador coasted to a 3-0 victory in Quito.

Ecuador are now third in the standings, three points behind second-placed Uruguay.

Messi penalty snatches thrilling Barca win

October 23, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi shrugged off his recent woes from the penalty spot with a decisive 94th-minute spot-kick to move Barcelona top of La Liga with a pulsating 3-2 win at Valencia on Saturday.

Messi

However, the dramatic victory came at a cost for Barca as a tearful Andres Iniestasuffered ligament damage in his right knee that could keep him out for several months.

Messi netted twice and his opener midway through the first half was allowed to stand despite Luis Suarez straying into an offside position.

Valencia hit back with two goals in six second-half minutes through on-loan Barca winger Munir El Haddadi and Rodrigo.

However, Suarez levelled and was then upended inside the area by Aymen Abdennour to allow Messi to hold his nerve and slot past penalty-stopping specialist Diego Alves for all three points.

Victory moves the champions a point clear of Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, who face Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao respectively on Sunday.

He may be one of the finest footballers ever but Messi has struggled from the spot in recent seasons, most notably blazing over as Argentina lost the Copa America final to Chile in June.

“Our best penalty-taker is Leo Messi without any doubt,” Barca boss Luis Enrique said.

Valencia stopper Alves had saved three penalties this season and from Messi in the past, but was beaten low to his right.

“Messi took responsibility in the best moment and it is a glorious feeling for us,” added Enrique.

A bad-tempered encounter spilled over after Messi’s strike, though, as Suarez and Neymar were hit by a plastic bottle thrown by the Valencia fans as Barca celebrated.

“We celebrated as it is normal to celebrate a last-minute winner,” said Enrique.

The game was only 14 minutes old when Iniesta was carried from the field in tears holding his right knee, which buckled under a heavy challenge from Enzo Perez.

Enrique was furious with referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco as Perez avoided even a yellow card, whilst a series of other fouls on Barca players went unpunished.

Barca confirmed Iniesta suffered lateral collateral ligament damage, but said further tests would be carried out to determine the exact extent of the injury.

However, it was Valencia who were up in arms at the officials when Messi opened the scoring on 22 minutes.

The Argentine’s fifth goal in three games since returning from a groin injury sneaked in at Alves’s near post, but the Brazilian goalkeeper had been distracted by the presence of the offside Suarez jumping over Messi’s effort.

“It is lamentable, absolutely lamentable that refereeing decisions prevented Valencia from taking a point or more from this match,” Valencia sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch told BeIN Sports Spain.

Valencia turned the game around early in the second half as Dani Parejo’s cut-back was drilled into the bottom corner by El Haddadi against his parent club.

The 21-year-old held his hands up apologetically after finding the net, but there were wild celebrations led by new Valencia boss Cesare Prandelli moments later when Rodrigo swept home Nani’s through ball.

Valencia’s lead lasted just six minutes despite Alves’s best efforts as Suarez pounced to smash home a rebound after Ivan Rakitic’s powerful header had been saved by the Valencia stopper.

Barca swarmed forward in search of a winner, but had to wait until deep into stoppage time when Messi played in Suarez and he was clearly taken out from behind by Abdennour.

Messi stroked home his 14th goal of the season to secure a vital three points in the title race.

Earlier, Espanyol battled back from 3-0 down at half-time to salvage a point and possibly coach Quique Sanchez Flores’s job in a 3-3 draw at home to Eibar.

Granada and Sporting Gijon remain in the relegation zone after a 0-0, whilst Real Sociedad moved into the top half with a comfortable 3-0 win over Alaves.

Messi treble as Guardiola suffers on Barca return

October 20, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi scored his second hat-trick in as many Champions League games to give Barcelona a 4-0 win over Manchester City as Pep Guardiola and Claudio Bravo endured harrowing returns to the Nou Camp on Wednesday.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their third goal to complete his hat trick with Luis Suarez and Neymar.Reuters / Albert Gea

A slip by Fernandinho allowed Messi to round former team mate Bravo and open the scoring in the 17th minute and the keeper completed a miserable night by getting sent off in the second half for handling outside the area after losing the ball.

The magical Messi hammered in his second from the edge of the area after turning two City defenders and pounced on a Luis Suarez lay-off to complete his treble in the 69th minute.

Barca substitute Jeremy Mathieu was then dismissed for two bookable offences. Neymar had a late penalty saved by substitute keeper Willy Caballero but the Brazilian made amends by scoring the fourth goal in the 89th minute.

“It’s difficult to play with Barcelona against 11 men. With 10, it was over,” said Guardiola, while adamant that he would not blame Bravo for the error which effectively ended his side’s night.

“Mistakes happen. He is sad but he will learn a lot. As long as I’m a coach I’ll keep playing out from the goalkeeper,” the coach added.

Luis Enrique’s team lead the group with nine points followed by Guardiola’s City on four. Borussia Moenchengladbach have three points while Celtic are bottom with one.

Guardiola, who surprisingly left out key marksman Sergio Aguero to accommodate more midfield strength, watched his old side pressed back in their own half for 15 minutes until Fernandinho’s error and Messi’s determination changed the course of events.

Messi began the move and fought to win the ball back before threading a pass to Andres Iniesta. Fernandinho tripped over just as he looked set to clear, leaving the Argentine an easy task to score.

City did not wilt, Nolito and Ilkay Guendogan having shots saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen, while at the other end Suarez was denied by Bravo and also shot wide.

The visitors collapsed after the break, though, their downfall starting when Bravo came out of his area and lost the ball to Suarez before using his hands to stop the Uruguayan’s attempted chip.

“Perhaps the result is a bit unfair on them but if you commit grave errors and you have three forwards like ours against you, this is what happens,” Barca coach Luis Enrique said.

Messi’s second strike was reminiscent of a goal he scored against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the 2015 semi-finals and Suarez’s generosity allowed the Argentine to knock in the third with simplicity.

Caballero thwarted Neymar from the spot but the Brazilian still had time for a neat fourth, heaping more pain on Barca’s most decorated coach Guardiola.

Lionel Messi back in Barcelona training after injury

October 13, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi returned to training with Barcelona on Wednesday following three weeks out with a groin injury.

Messi

France international defender Samuel Umtiti also returned to training according to a statement on the Catalan giants’ website.

“Both Leo Messi and Samuel Umtiti, despite neither yet being declared fit for selection as they battle to recover from injury, were able to join the rest of the team for the workout,” said the statement accompanied by a photo showing Argentine Messi at training.

The statement also said the likes of Spanish internationals Andres Iniesta, Gerard Piqueand Sergio Busquets had returned following the international break.

Pique was in the photo alongside Messi and Brazil’s Neymar.

Messi, 29, tore a muscle in his groin during the 1-1 draw at home to La Liga title rivals Atletico Madrid on September 21.

Umtiti, 22, had strained a ligament in his knee the day before in training.

The returnees provided a welcome boost for Barca, who saw Spanish full-back Sergi Roberto and back-up goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen of the Netherlands return from international duty injured.

Another full-back, Jordi Alba, and Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic are also out.

Barca host Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday before Manchester City visit the Camp Nou next week for a crucial Champions League tie, with the Premier League outfit’s Catalan coach Pep Guardiola returning to the club he led to two European titles during a glorious four-year spell.

Barca have had an inconsistent start to the season, thrashing the likes of Real Betis (6-2), Celtic (7-0) and Sporting Gijon (5-0) but losing 2-1 at home to Alaves and falling 4-3 at Celta Vigo.

They currently sit fourth in La Liga, although only two points behind leaders Atletico.

They top their Champions League group after winning their opening two games against Celtic and Borussia Moenchengladbach (2-1).

Barca have resources to combat missing Messi – Luis Enrique

September 24, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona coach Luis Enrique insists his star-studded squad can cope without Lionel Messi for the next three weeks, but claimed the Argentine’s absence is “terrible” for football.

Messi

Messi will miss Barca’s trips to Sporting Gijon, Borussia Moenchengladbach in the Champions League and Celta Vigo in the next week due to a groin strain.

However, Enrique refused to become embroiled in a war of words with Argentina boss Edgardo Bauza, who blasted Barca’s treatment of the five-time World Player of the Year.

“That the best player in the world is injured is terrible for everyone, not just Barca fans but anyone who enjoys football,” said Enrique on Friday.

Messi will miss Argentina’s World Cup qualifiers against Peru and Paraguay at the start of next month.

“They send us messages to look after Messi but they don’t protect him. He plays every match,” Bauza said after Messi suffered a recurrence of the injury that also kept him out of Argentina’s last qualifier against Venezuela earlier this month.

“I don’t want to get embroiled in the world of opinions that only aggravate the situation,” added Enrique.

“The reality is that we are all looking for what is best for Messi and all the players at our club.”

Barca coped incredibly well without Messi for two months at a similar stage of the campaign last season with Luis Suarez and Neymar coming to the fore in a run of eight wins in 10 games.

“Luckily last season when unfortunately Leo Messi missed two-and-a-half months I believe, the team responded brilliantly,” continued Enrique, who is looking for a similar response.

“We continue to have a fantastic squad. I have always said that with Messi we are stronger because he is the best, but we also have more than enough resources to overcome our opponents and that is the objective we have.

“Hopefully Leo and the other players recover as soon as possible to prepare for the season ahead. We are all aware that to win titles we need a squad and to overcome moments like these.”

Luis Enrique takes blame for shock Barcelona loss

September 11, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barca boss Luis Enrique admitted he must take responsibility for the Spanish champions’ shock home defeat to newly promoted Alaves after starting Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez on the bench.

Barcelona

Enrique made seven changes on Saturday after many of his squad returned to club duty after taking part in World Cup qualifiers around the world in the past week, whilst Messi was also struggling with a minor groin injury.

“I am the one ultimately responsible for all the bad things that happen,” said the Barca boss after suffering just his fifth home league defeat in three seasons in charge at the Camp Nou.

“Many of the changes came from the circumstances surrounding us, but we have 22 players and we are going to use everyone this season.”

As well as leaving out Messi and Suarez, Enrique changed his entire back four, whilst goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and striker Paco Alcacer made their debuts.

Deyverson beat Cillessen from close range to hand Alaves a surprise lead before half-time, but Jeremy Mathieu brought Barca back into the game when he headed homeNeymar’s corner a minute into the second-half.

Mathieu somehow then blasted wide when it seemed easier to score from another set-piece before Barca’s makeshift defence was caught out once more when Ibai Gomez slotted home the winner.

Enrique called upon Messi, Suarez and Andres Iniesta from the bench, but even they couldn’t break Alaves’s resistance as Messi fired wide deep into stoppage time.

“We lacked fluidity, precision and we were fragile in defence, which is one of the things that normally makes us strong,” added Enrique.

“The one positive is it is a time to reflect on what this team has won over the years. Everyone makes us favourites for everything, but it is not easy to win any game.”

Enrique is expected to revert back to his strongest line-up for Celtic’s visit to the Camp Nou to start their Champions League campaign.

The Scottish club will be high on confidence after thrashing old rivals Rangers 5-1 on Saturday.

“It’s clear it wasn’t our best game, they didn’t have many chances but they were very effective,” said midfielder Sergio Busquets.

“We lacked a spark, we lacked a lot of things. It is hard to say it is a deserved defeat because they also didn’t create a lot.

“Now we have to think about Celtic because the season rolls on.”

And Iniesta insisted Barca will have licked their wounds and learned the lesson in time for the visit of the Scottish champions.

“We have to do better in the next game in a different competition,” added the Spanish international. “As always when there is a defeat, we have to analyse it and correct it for the next game.”

Barca trio reunited, Ronaldo returns for Real

September 9, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona’s fearsome front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar could join forces for the first time in four months against Alaves, while Cristiano Ronaldo will make his Real Madrid return on Saturday.

Barcelona

Neymar has missed Barca’s 100 percent start to the season due to his efforts in leading Brazil to Olympic gold on home soil, but returned to Spain for the first time since May after more international duty in World Cup qualifying this week and is expected to start at the Camp Nou.

Messi is a much bigger doubt after missing Argentina’s clash with Venezuela in midweek due to a groin problem. The five-time World Player of the Year has played a limited part in training in recent days and coach Luis Enrique is likely to be cautious for the first of seven games in 22 days for Barca.

Paco Alcacer is in line to make his debut after sealing a 30 million-euro ($33 million) move from Valencia and the Spanish international striker is aware he will have to make the most of limited opportunities as fourth choice behind Messi, Suarez and Neymar.

“I will do everything I can to take advantage of the chances I have to the full,” Alcacer said as he was presented on Thursday.

Andres Iniesta has also returned to training following a knee injury and will battle Arda Turan and Denis Suarez for a place in midfield as both have impressed early in the campaign.

Ronaldo makes his long-awaited return at the Santiago Bernabeu against Osasuna earlier on Saturday in what will be his first appearance since suffering ligament damage in his left knee during Portugal’s Euro 2016 final win over France.

Real haven’t suffered in Ronaldo’s absence with two wins from their opening two La Liga games and victory over Sevilla in the European Super Cup.

And after winning two Champions League titles in his first three seasons at Madrid, Gareth Bale insists the European champions have to put more emphasis on ending a four-year run without winning La Liga.

“It’s important to try to win La Liga because it’s been a few years since we have and it’s normal that it’s our focus,” said Bale.

“I’m looking forward to next weekend’s game against Osasuna and I’m sure that they will make it difficult for us, but it’ll be great to be able to call upon almost the whole squad.”

Karim Benzema and Pepe have also returned from injury to leave Zinedine Zidane with a fully-fit squad bar the absence of goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid desperately need to kickstart their season after back-to-back disappointing draws with Alaves and Leganes when they visit Celta Vigo in the first match in a new early Saturday kick-off time of 1300 (1100GMT) designed to compete with the English Premier League in Asian television markets.

Celta finished sixth last season, but have also endured a poor start with defeats in both their opening matches and the Galicians will be without influential playmaker Fabian Orellana for a month due to a muscle tear.

Early season leaders Las Palmas have been on fire in scoring nine goals in their opening two games to shoot ahead of Barca and Madrid to the top of the table for the first time in 38 years.

However, the searing Spanish heat could get in their way this weekend with record temperatures for September registered across the country.

League chief Javier Tebas has promised players’ safety won’t be risked and Las Palmas’ visit to Sevilla is one of a number of games that could be delayed or even postponed if temperatures are deemed to be too high.

Messi ruled out of Venezuela qualifier

September 3, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Argentina striker Lionel Messi will miss Tuesday’s 2018 World Cup qualifier away to Venezuela with a groin problem, national team coach Edgardo Bauza said on Friday.

Messi

“Unfortunately, he won’t be able to play. We can’t take any risks. We spoke with the doctor and it’s the sensible thing to do. It must be treated, we must take care of him,” Bauza told reporters at the team’s training base in Buenos Aires.

Messi made a triumphant return after his short-lived international retirement by scoring the winning goal in Thursday’s 1-0 victory over Uruguay in Mendoza.

The result moved Argentina to the top of the 10-team South American qualifying group after seven of 18 matches. The top four teams will automatically qualify for the 2018 finals in Russia.

Messi rejoins Argentina for love of country

August 13, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Star striker Lionel Messi will return to play for the Argentine national football team for “love” of his country, despite earlier vowing to retire in frustration, he said on Friday.

Messi

It was heartening news for the country’s demanding soccer fans after Argentina were knocked out of the Olympic Games this week in the group stage, their latest in a string of humiliations.

The 29-year-old Barcelona superstar abruptly had announced his international retirement in tears after Argentina lost the Copa America final to Chile on June 26.

“A lot of things went through my mind on the night of the final and I gave serious thought to quitting, but my love for my country and this shirt is too great,” he said on Friday in a statement released by his management company.

His earlier vow to quit had dismayed fans, many of whom held street rallies and posted online messages begging him not to go.

It became practically an affair of state when Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri called on him to stay.

“It is a gift from God to have the best player in the world in a footballing country like ours,” Macri said in June.

“Lionel Messi is the greatest thing we have in Argentina and we must take care of him.”

Argentina’s new coach was due later on Friday to announce his squad for looming World Cup qualifiers.

Coach Edgardo Bauza met with Messi in Barcelona this week hoping to convince him to rejoin the squad.

Bauza was due to announce his list of players for games against Uruguay on September 1 and Venezuela on September 6. A news conference was scheduled for the announcement at 2100 GMT Friday.

Bauza took over the job from Gerardo Martino and was tasked with turning things around ahead of the 2018 World Cup, amid a management crisis at the Argentine Football Association.

“There are a lot of issues that need to be resolved in Argentine football, but I prefer to help from within and not to criticize from the outside,” Messi’s statement said.

“I send my thanks to all of those who want me to continue playing for Argentina. I hope that we’ll be able to give them something to cheer about soon.”

Argentina have suffered a string of disappointing losses in big tournaments with Messi, including the World Cup final in 2014.

His vow to quit followed by Martino’s resignation deepened the chaos in the frustrated squad ahead of the Olympics.

Argentina eventually exited the Games in Brazil on Wednesday after a 1-1 draw with Honduras.

Five Ballons d’Or, four Champions League titles and three Club World Cups have prompted many to rank Messi the best player ever.

But at international level he has only a 2008 Olympic title.

His shortage of international silverware is arguably the one thing that stops him definitively eclipsing Argentina’s World Cup-winning soccer legend Diego Maradona.

Messi’s phenomenal goal-scoring record and gravity-defying skills have helped secure eight league crowns with Barcelona as well as four Spanish Cups and six Spanish Super Cups.

He helped lead Barcelona to league triumph in Spain this year, as one in a deadly trio of strikers along with Brazilian Neymar and Uruguayan Luis Suarez.

But Messi has suffered off the pitch in a court case in Spain. He was convicted last month of tax fraud related to his image rights and vowed to appeal.

The Spanish court handed him and his father Jorge a 21-month suspended jail sentence.

The player was also fined the equivalent of $2.3 million and his father $1.8 million.

Barcelona confident Messi will stay, urge fans to support him

July 12, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi is not interested in leaving Barcelona in the wake of his sentencing for tax fraud, according to club spokesman Josep Vives.

Barcelona's Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi (L) sits in court with his father Jorge Horacio Messi during their trial for tax fraud in Barcelona, Spain, June 2, 2016. REUTERS/ALBERTO ESTEVEZ/FILES

A Barcelona court last week handed Messi and his father 21-month prison sentences and fined the former 2.0 million euros (1.70 million pounds) and the latter 1.5 million euros (1.28 million pounds) for tax fraud.

They are unlikely to go to prison because under Spanish law, a first-time offender who receives a sentence of less two years for a non-violent crime does not serve jail time.

Both have already appealed to the supreme court.

Media reports in England recently claimed Messi’s father and agent Jorge had met with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich aboard his yacht, raising concerns over whether the star would remain with Barca.

“We have maintained contact with his entourage and we are not aware Leo wants to leave the club, we simply don’t get that feeling,” Vives told reporters in Spain on Monday.

“We are not worried about this, nothing has reached us to suggest this is the case.”

Vives, meanwhile, asked the fans to “express sympathy” for the Argentine by joining via social media a campaign launched by the club called “We are all Leo Messi.”

“It is a simple campaign, but we hope that it will show how much we support him,” Vives then told the club’s official website.

“We are talking about Messi, a player who was 19 when he signed all those contracts and it has been proven that he had no knowledge of all their details. He just focused on football and signed the contracts he was told to sign by his advisers.

“Messi is being treated unfairly and the club are putting themselves in a position to defend him. We have a clear conscience and will not back down. We are inviting supporters to join our campaign.”

Vives believes the state prosecutor attempted to discredit Messi.

“The club cannot tolerate this,” he said. “There are other well known personalities who have not been subject to this type of situation as Messi has been.

“This shows lack of respect and we don’t want that for any fan, for any member and neither for Messi. That is why we are putting this campaign of support together.”

Messi record as Argentina thrash Venezuela

June 19, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi scored a record-equalling 54th international goal as Argentina outclassed Venezuela 4-1 to book their place in the semi-finals of the Copa America Centenario here Saturday.

Messi

The Barcelona superstar scored his fourth goal of the tournament in the 60th minute at the Gillette Stadium to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s long-time Argentina international goalscoring record.

Messi also created a goal for Gonzalo Higuain, who scored twice, and second half substitute Erik Lamela as Argentina set up a semi-final against the United States in Houston on Tuesday.

Afterwards Messi played down his goalscoring milestone.

“I’m happy for what it means and it’s nice to be next to ‘Batigol’ (Batistuta), but for me tonight the most important thing is the result,” Messi said.

Messi is determined to lead Argentina to their first trophy in 23 years after a series of agonizing near-misses which include defeats in the finals of last year’s Copa America and the 2014 World Cup final.

“I think people sometimes overlook that we got to two finals, and only focus on the fact that we lost,” Messi said.

“For us to be back in another semi-final of a big tournament like this one is a great achievement for these players.”

Few would bet against Messi achieving his goal after an inspirational display that left Venezuela chasing shadows in the early part of Saturday’s quarter-final.

Messi’s genius created the opening goal after eight minutes, with the playmaker lofting a sublime curling pass to pick out Higuain’s run into the area.

Napoli forward Higuain still had plenty to do but skillfully directed a first time strike past Venezuela goalkeeper Dani Hernandez for a wonderful goal.

Argentina remained firmly in control but were jolted in the 27th minute when Nicolas Gaitan picked up a needless yellow card for a kick on Alexander Gonzalez that will see him suspended for the semi-final.

Argentina’s dominance clearly had Venezuela rattled, and the Vinotinto’s defensive unease led to the next goal.

A slack backpass from Arquimedes Figuera went straight to Higuain in space, and the striker coolly rounded Hernandez to stroke home his second of the night to make it 2-0 after 29 minutes.

But just when it looked as if the floodgates would open, Venezuela rallied impressively and had Argentina rocking with a series of chances.

West Bromwich Albion striker Salomon Rondon forced a save from Sergio Romero and hit the woodwork in quick succession.

Romero was left scrambling to save once again just before half-time, when fullback Rolf Feltscher’s long-range shot deflected off Gabriel Mercado and looped up and over the Argentina keeper.

Venezuela looked to have a justifiable claim for a penalty when Higuain brought down Josef Martinez in the box but Mexican referee Roberto Garcia was unmoved.

Seconds later though Garcia was pointing to the spot after Romero clumsily bundled over Martinez for a clear penalty.

But Venezuela’s pressure went unrewarded when Luis Manuel Seijas tried a risky “Panenka” down the middle which Romero read and gathered with ease.

Venezuela were unable to renew their period of pressure in the second half, and Messieffectively put the contest to bed with his record-equalling goal in the 60th minute, which came after Argentina pressed high to force a turnover.

Gaitan won the tackle and passed to Messi, who quickly played a one-two with the Benfica winger before poking his finish between Hernandez’s legs.

Rondon pulled a goal back with a header in the 70th minute, but Messi’s response was instant, threading a pass to Lamela whose shot crept in at Hernandez’s near post.

Magical Messi grabs hat-trick as Argentina romp into quarters

June 11, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi scored a magical hat-trick in 19 minutes as Argentina cruised into the Copa America Centenario quarter-finals with a 5-0 rout of Panama on Friday.

Messi

Messi had been forced to delay his debut in the tournament after a slow recovery from a lower back injury, with Argentina coach Gerardo Martino surprisingly naming him amongst the substitutes once more.

But Messi wasted no time in stamping his genius on the tournament after coming on in the 61st minute to replace Augusto Fernandez with Argentina leading the Group D game 1-0.

An electrifying cameo from the Barcelona superstar began with his first goal of the tournament on 68 minutes, finishing with aplomb after Gonzalo Higuain’s shot bounced off a Panamanian defender into his path.

But there was no question of luck with his second, with Messi curling a wonderful free-kick into the top corner to bring the Soldier Field crowd to its feet in the 78th minute.

With Panama’s heads down, Messi then duly completed his quick-fire hat-trick — skipping clear of a marker inside the penalty area to finish emphatically for 4-0.

There was still time for Messi to have a hand in Argentina’s fifth goal of the evening, providing a sublime pass in the build-up to Sergio Aguero’s close range headed effort in the 90th minute.

Aguero’s Manchester City team-mate Nicolas Otamendi had opened the scoring for Argentina in the seventh minute, heading home an Angel Di Maria free-kick from close range.

“I’m happy to be playing again, I really wanted to play tonight,” a satisfied Messi said. “I’m very happy with the result and the goals,” added Messi, whose entrance was accompanied by a loud ovation and chants of his name.

Shellshocked Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez, the experienced Colombian, was left in awe by Messi’s masterclass. “Messi is a monster,” Gomez said. “Before he came on the match was quite even. But with Messi you make one mistake, and you pay for it.”

Aguero’s Manchester City team-mate Nicolas Otamendi had opened the scoring for Argentina in the seventh minute, heading home an Angel Di Maria free-kick from close range.

The victory sees Argentina, convincing 2-1 winners over Chile in their opening game, guaranteed a spot in the last eight with one group game remaining.

The only blemish on the evening was an injury to Di Maria, who limped off in the first half to extend his miserable record of injuries in major tournaments.

The Paris Saint-Germain winger was injured in the 2014 World Cup, missing the final, and was also injured during last year’s Copa America in Chile.

Argentina are now firmly on course to top Group D, with only one game against pointless Bolivia to come.

Friday’s win marked a dazzling return to the spotlight for Messi, who is determined to help lead Argentina to their first major international tournament victory for 23 years.

Messi, a veteran of Argentina’s agonizing defeats in the 2014 World Cup final and 2015 Copa America final, had arrived in the United States nursing a back injury sustained during a friendly victory against Honduras last month.

He was late joining up with the squad after returning to Spain to give evidence in his tax fraud trial.

On Thursday he had faced a fresh round of criticism from Argentina great Diego Maradona, who accused Messi of lacking “the personality to be a leader” during remarks to journalists in Paris on the eve of Euro 2016.

But 24 hours later, Messi crafted the best possible response on the pitch at Chicago, lighting up the tournament with a hat-trick performance that firmly establishes Argentina as the team to beat.

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