Friday, 5 June 2015

With 58 goals and 26 assists - Is this Messi's best ever season?

With 58 goals and 26 assists - Is this Messi's best ever season?The transformation is total. After starting January on the Barcelona bench amid a fall-out with Luis Enrique and having been blighted by fitness issues as well as suffering World Cup disappointment in the previous year, 2015 began ominously for Lionel Messi.

But five months down the line, the Argentine attacker is back to the peak of his powers and on the brink of leading the Catalan club to an unprecedented second treble as the Blaugrana prepare to face Juventus in the Champions League final on Saturday.

With three goals in his first six games for Barca in 2014-15, it was something of a slow start for Messi this term. But the Argentine soon resumed his habitual scoring streak in November and December, hitting three hat-tricks in four games - against Sevilla, APOEL and Espanyol.

Not that it's all about goals with Leo, anyway. The current campaign has seen the birth of a more mature Messi, now not only a devastating delantero but a peerless playmaker, too. Even when he was not scoring so many earlier on in the season, he was hitting Hollywood passes to his team-mates, taking out defenders with astonishing angled balls only he could conjure up.

"Every year he surprises us," Diego Simeone told Goal in his latest Champions League column. "Now we expect him to do something different in every single game."

And more often than not, he does. Last Saturday's stunning strike in the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Club at Camp Nou was described as "from another galaxy" by Luis Enrique, while Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu called it "one of the best goals in the history of football". It sounds like an exaggeration, but it probably wasn't.

Luis Enrique must take credit for how he has handled this squad since the winter discontent in the Catalan capital, yet it was the players themselves who came up with the idea of Messi returning to the right flank and Suarez starting as an orthodox centre-forward.

"Honestly, I just ended up in the central position during a game by chance, and Leo said to me: 'Stay there'," the striker said in April. "Afterwards the coach saw that we had come up with a good solution by ourselves and we started trying it out. No one officially made the decision, but obviously from then on it was the coach who started playing me as No. 9."

Messi's pallid performances out on the right in the Tata Martino era must have dissuaded Luis Enrique from opting for that particular tactical tweak, yet it works wonderfully with the tireless contribution, commitment and competitiveness of Suarez in a central role, with Leo given license to drop deep and make the play as he sees fit.

"He sees things before anyone else," Simeone added. "That's why he is the best in the world."

In 2015, there is little doubt that last statement is true. And even though he will finish the campaign some way short of his incredible 73 goals in 60 games in 2011-12, this term has seen Messi receive greater help from his fellow forwards in front of goal than during Pep Guardiola's final campaign, while he has also evolved into much more of an all-rounder - a more complete version of an already astonishing player, a fantasy footballer who continues to raise the bar with his sparkling skills.

So forget the numbers. If, as expected, Leo leads Barca to their second treble in six seasons on Saturday, this term will surely have been his greatest of Messi's magical career at the Catalan club. And that's saying something.

James Milner: Liverpool agree deal for Manchester City midfielder

James Milner
Liverpool have agreed a deal to sign England midfielder James Milner from Manchester City on a free transfer.
The Reds have agreed personal terms with the 29-year-old, who will join the club when his contract at the Etihad expires on 1 July - subject to a medical.
Milner won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and the League Cup during his five years at City.
He has won 53 England caps and scored eight goals for City last season.
Milner joined City from Aston Villa in 2010 after being signed for £26m by then Blues manager Roberto Mancini.
He has gone on to make 125 appearances for City scoring 18 goals.
Last season he played 24 times, with seven assists as City finished second in the league.
The midfielder has also played for Newcastle United and his hometown club Leeds United, making his Premier League debut aged 16 in 2002.

Juventus or Barcelona – who will win the Champions League final?

Debate: Juventus or Barcelona – who will win the Champions League final?Europe's greatest club prize is up for grabs as the kings of Spain and Italy meet in Saturday's Champions League final.

Barcelona have enjoyed a stunning first season under Luis Enrique, having wrestled the Liga title back from Atletico Madrid before downing Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Copa del Rey. They now have the chance to seal a first treble since Pep Guardiola's debut campaign in charge in 2009.

Juventus, meanwhile, are also on the brink of history. A fourth-successive Scudetto was followed by a Coppa Italia triumph over Lazio, meaning Massimiliano Allegri - also in his first term at the helm - could deliver the Old Lady's greatest ever season of silverware.

But which side will come out on top in Berlin? Two of Goal's writers go head-to-head on Europe's most anticipated showdown - and you can have your say in our poll below...

'Juve are Europe's most versatile side & Barca know it'

By Joe Wright

Plenty of comparisons have been drawn in recent days between this Juventus side and Jose Mourinho's Inter - the last Italian outfit to win the treble. One thing is for certain: just like Inter in 2010, Juve are better placed than any other team in the world to defeat Barcelona and win the Champions League.

Massimiliano Allegri has already warned that his side cannot afford to simply sit back and allow Barca to dictate and, while a repeat of Inter's heroic 10-man defensive display at Camp Nou is unlikely, the Serie A champions must be prepared for large spells without the ball. They can cope with that. In beating Borussia Dortmund, Monaco and Real Madrid in the knockouts, Juve have displayed more versatility than any other side, offering some devastating attacking play whilst remaining nigh-on impervious at the back.

The Bianconeri boast both a strong team ethic and match-winning individuals. Carlos Tevez and Paul Pogba can produce the magic they need in attack; Leonardo Bonucci and Gianluigi Buffon are a defensive spine intimidating enough to leave even the fabled MSN feeling a little anxious, even with Giorgio Chiellini now ruled out through injury. A midfield of Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio is capable of dictating the tempo of games or simply snuffing out danger right across the middle, cutting the supply lines to any match-winning superstars further forward. Cristiano Ronaldo can attest to that.

A sense of fate surrounds the Italians as they head to Berlin - the site of their famous World Cup triumph in 2006 which came in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal. Juve's place in the final marks the completion of their recovery from that devastating episode and gives captain Buffon - who stuck with the team in those dark days in Serie B - his best chance in over a decade at winning the only major prize that eludes him.

Juve might not be favourites, but neither were Inter in that semi-final five years ago. And Barcelona remember that better than most.

'Barca are a behemoth with three deadly horns'

By Peter McVitie
It is true that Juventus have cruised to a fourth consecutive Serie A title and a first Coppa Italia crown for 20 years in what has been an exceptional season. It is also true that they are more than worthy of their place in the Champions League final and are arguably the most dominant Italian side we have seen since Marcello Lippi’s Bianconeri machine reached three European Cup finals in a row in the 1990s. However, the challenge that awaits them in Berlin this Saturday is too big for even Massimiliano Allegri’s exceptional team.
Barcelona’s display against Athletic Bilbao in last week’s Copa del Rey final in Camp Nou was an ominous message to Juventus that the Blaugrana cannot be stopped. Athletic may not be as strong as Juve, but Barca have been wiping out everyone they have faced since the turn of the year. They have lost two games in 2015, one of which - the second leg against Bayern Munich - was virtually a dead rubber.
It does not matter which defender or how many defenders you throw at Lionel Messi, when he hits his stride with the ball at his feet, he will find a way through. And it’s not just the four-time Ballon d’Or winner Juventus need to worry about, it’s all three of the Barcelona front line.
Messi is back to his best, Neymar is in wonderful form and Suarez, with 16 goals and 14 assists in 27 Liga games has had an astounding debut season. Not only are MSN lethal as individuals, they combine so remarkably well and are so happy to set each other up. Messi and Neymar have scored more goals between them in the Champions League than the entire Juve team.
Terrifyingly, the supporting cast has been just as impressive. Ivan Rakitic is now right at home in Luis Enrique's side and has added a physical edge to their passing game, and even Dani Alves has been excellent in the last few months. In addition, Andres Iniesta, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano have all contributed massively while Gerard Pique has returned to his previous levels in a mean defence guarded by Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Whatever comes their way, the Blaugrana can deal with it. Demolish it, even.
This is not a team. It's a big unstoppable behemoth with three deadly horns on its head. And on Saturday, it will claim another victim.

Sterling, Di Maria, Falcao, Advocaat, Young, Zouma

The GuardianThe Sun
England winger Raheem Sterling is open to the possibility of leaving Liverpool for Manchester United, although the 20-year-old is concerned how the transfer would be received given the fierce rivalry between the clubs. (Guardian) 
Liverpool remain adamant they have no intention of doing business with their north-west rivals. (Liverpool Echo) 
Radamel Falcao, 29, wants to complete a move to Chelsea before Colombia start their Copa America campaign on 14 June. (Daily Telegraph) 
The Sun
The Sun's back page on Friday
Dick Advocaat will be handed a £50m transfer fund to revitalise Sunderland after agreeing to remain as manager of the Black Cats. (Daily Mirror) 
Bayern Munich's Brazil defender Dante, 31, has rejected a move to Manchester United after declaring that he stands more chance of winning silverware with the German club. (Daily Star) 
Manchester United are ready to sell Nani this summer, but Inter Milan rather than Sporting Lisbon, where the 28-year-old winger spent last season on loan, are reportedly his most likely destination. (Independent) 
Serie A side Sampdoria are preparing to sign Chelsea's 20-year-old central defender Kurt Zouma, according to the Italian club's president. (Metro) 
Barcelona full-back Dani Alves, 32, has agreed a pre-contract agreement with Manchester United and will move to the Premier League club on 1 July. (Daily Star) 
Southampton midfielder Victor Wanyama, 23, says it 'would be nice' to join Arsenal. (Daily Mail) 
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has reportedly sacked first-team coach Mike Marsh, the former Reds midfielder who has been with the first team for three seasons and had previously worked with the youth side. (Sun - subscription required) 
QPR striker Charlie Austin - a £10m target for Tottenham, Newcastle, Aston Villa and Southampton - has hinted that he could be ready to leave the relegated west London club. (Daily Express) 
The Guardian
The Guardian sports supplement on Friday
Arsenal are preparing a £25m bid for Monaco midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia, 22, if they miss out on Southampton's Morgan Schneiderlin. (Independent) 
Liverpool have received a fillip in their hopes of signing 23-year-old Sporting Lisbon keeper Rui Patricio after the Portuguese club signed Slovenian keeper Azbe Jug. (Daily Express) 
Manchester United are lining up Galatasary goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, 28, as their replacement for Real Madrid-bound David De Gea. (Metro) 
Meanwhile, winger Ashley Young, 29, is expected to sign a new three-year contract at Old Trafford next month. (Daily Mirror) 
Paris St-Germain have made Manchester United winger Angel Di Maria, 27, their main target this summer. (Sportmasta) 
But the Argentina international says he will stay at Manchester United next season, despite struggling in his first year at the club. (Sun - subscription required) 
Belgium defender Jan Vertonghen, 28, plans to agree a new deal at Tottenham next season, despite being linked with a move to Napoli. (Times subscription required) 
Brighton are hoping to sign Iran World Cup winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh and are thought to have agreed a fee in excess of £1.4m with the 21-year-old's Dutch club NEC Nijmegen. (The Argus) 
Port Vale's out-of-contract striker Tom Pope, 29, is a target for Bury, recently promoted to League One. (Stoke Sentinel) 
Everton legends including Howard Kendall and Peter Reid paid tribute to the memory of Andy King at the former Toffees midfielder's funeral at St Luke's Church next to Goodison Park. The funeral cortege arrived to the Z-Cars theme and left to Elvis Presley's 'In The Ghetto'. (Liverpool Echo) 

Best of social media

Wayne Rooney with the Champions League in 2008
Rooney and Michael Carrick are the only players from the 2008 final still in the United side
Premier League teams and players have been using the hashtag #TBT or Throw Back Thursday to recall happy times, Chelsea remembering  Eden Hazard signing three years ago.
Manchester United and England captain Wayne Rooney savours United's Champions League triumph in 2008 and asks for predictions for this year's final between Juventus and Barcelona on Saturday: "#TBT to one of the best nights of my career. Who does everybody think will win it this weekend?"
Jack Wilshere
Jack Wilshere with novelty headgear and the FA Cup at Wembley
Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere puts the recent troubles over his FA Cup parade celebrations behind him by tweeting a picture  and writes: "TBT with my favourite Cup and my favourite hat."
Gary Lineker tweets  about his new five-year deal to remain as Match of the Day host, but is there a golf link... or just a word missing? "Delighted to announce that I have agreed a new five-year deal with @BBCSport to present their football. Thanks to you all for putting with me."
Champions League final ball
The official ball of the Champions League final
The ball that will be used in Saturday's Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus in Berlin has been revealed on the official Champions League Twitter feed.  The ball is made by Adidas and features images associated with the German city, including the Brandenburg Gate.
Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany pays tribute to James Milner following the England international's move to Liverpool, tweeting a picture  of them at a boxing match, and writing: "You'll be missed at City brother, as a team-mate and a friend! Your drive and passion were inspirational. Good luck!"

And finally

Sunderland fans attempting to raise a £150 Flower Fund for manager Dick Advocaat's wife as a thank you for allowing her husband to stay on at the Stadium of Light, have accumulated more than £1,100. (GoFundMe) 
Norwich has been voted the second-worst away day experience in the Championship according to a survey of travelling fans, with only Blackpool faring worse in the division.

Flying Eagles back on track, but in danger of losing identity

Nigeria got their U-20 World Cup campaign back on track with a 4-0 drubbing of Korea
Football is a game that is both affirmed and constrained by its humanity, a fact which enigmatic manager Marcelo Bielsa readily, but ruefully, acknowledges. “If players weren’t human, I would never lose,” he declares. Trouble is, they are. Consequently, there is no such thing as a homogenous system in football.
Which brings us to the subject of balance. In the absence of homogeneity, balance in a team is achieved in two ways: proper allocation of resources, or an intelligent tactical framework. Manu Garba utilized neither in the opening U20 World Cup loss to Brazil: his selection was top-heavy and bordered on conceit, while his set-up failed to make up for the problems created by the line-up.
This time, he went in quite the opposite direction, selecting a workmanlike midfield and reining in the wide players. While the result, a resounding 4-0 win, seems to justify his decision, he must now find a middle ground, a mean of performance and outcome which is the only way his uber-talented team can fulfil its destiny.
Electing to make four changes to the Brazil starting eleven – including the entire attacking midfield band – was a tacit admission of guilt on Garba’s part. There were varying degrees of success to these changes; but while Saviour Godwin proved the theory of nominative determinism by living up to his name after a tense first half, it was Akinjide Idowu who brought the control that was so sorely lacking against the Brazilians.
The other two were not so inspired. Bernard Bulbwa, he of the consciousness-pulverizing scorcher against Senegal at the Africa Youth Championship, showed twinkle-toes and a willing work-rate, but slowed the momentum of numerous attacks by inexplicably taking too many touches. Aside winning fouls from the over-eager Koreans, he contributed little to actual build-up, and appears to lack any kind of incisiveness with his final ball.
Kingsley Sokari was brought in, ostensibly because star player Kelechi Iheanacho had done a poor job in the opener of linking the midfield to the attack. The Manchester City man has often featured at club level in a central, attacking role, and was guilty of taking up unhelpfully high positions rather than actually acting as a conduit. Sokari did a better job in that regard, and played a lot deeper, but lacks the outright quality on the ball of Iheanacho.
Here he made it a point of duty to poorly weigh nearly every single attempted pass. Passes are a lot more than moving the ball on, they send a message to the receiver; Sokari’s seemed to scream, “PANIC!” regularly. In fairness, he took his goal very well, firing into the top corner after a poorly cleared free-kick broke to him on the edge of the box. It put gloss on the scoreline, as did substitute Success Isaac’s finish after a lovely one-two with Taiwo Awoniyi.
Godwin will undoubtedly grab the headlines (with a name like that, it would be criminal if he didn’t!) but Awoniyi was the most impressive performer on the day for the Flying Eagles. Success is undoubtedly quicker and technically superior, but Awoniyi is a striker’s striker: relentless, mobile and a handful physically. He has yet to get off the mark in New Zealand, but he was decisive here, assisting with an incisive through-ball for Godwin’s second, before linking up with Granada’s Success for the coup de grace.

In truth, Korea DPR never really looked like scoring, which meant that the other big personnel decision of the game escaped real scrutiny. Garba resisted calls to drop goalkeeper Joshua Enaholo following his horror 45 minutes against Brazil, a huge show of faith in the young goalkeeper. All things considered, it was the right thing to do; his manager’s confidence will do him good. Lest we forget, this is a very good goalkeeper, and as long as errors are the exception rather than the norm, he should be all right.
The scoreline was certainly emphatic, but the team did struggle to overcome a disciplined, but not particularly well-organized Korean defence, and only got going after half-time. It required a goalkeeping error, a flap at an arcing Musa Mohammed cross to allow Godwin head into an unguarded net, but once that went in, the Asian side visibly deflated. The incrementally improving quality of the goals, each better than the last, was perfectly illustrative of the game’s trajectory: the Flying Eagles simply grew in confidence as the clock ticked.
That said, coach Garba still has to decide how to achieve the right balance in the team. To lean so much toward defensive solidity dilutes the team's identity and takes away from what made them favourites in the first place: the zip, the attacking potential, the flair of 2013. This was the most functional selection possible, and ‘back-to-basics’ is the perfect safety net to cushion a fall, but with so much quality on the bench, surely it is best to address the problem rather than ignore it.

Midfielder Steven Ukoh excited by Super Eagles’ quality

Steven Ukoh (l) is excited by the quality in the Nigeria side
The Swiss-based player expects to make an impact in Stephen Keshi’s new team as the squad prepares to face Chad on June 13
Steven Ukoh does not often speak to the media but when he does, he comes across as a confident young player who is looking to make a name in the game with Nigeria at the highest level.
The Biel-Bienne midfielder has been recalled to coach Stephen Keshi’s squad to face Chad in next week’s Africa Cup of Nations qualification game in Kaduna.
With the Super Eagles’ failure to qualify for the last Afcon, there is eager anticipation to see Keshi’s new look side.
And Ukoh sees his part in the team as a veritable opportunity to join in returning Nigerian football back to its hallowed heights.
“I see the Super Eagles as a very big team and I feel very honoured to be here in Abuja. I think it is a very good opportunity for me and the new team the Chief Coach is building to really progress,” Ukoh told Sportmasta.
“I followed a lot of the big European leagues and I see a lot of big [Nigerian] players. I also watched Odion Ighalo in Watford. So there are a lot of Nigerian players that I know very well.”
The 23-year-old, who switched to Nigeria after playing for the Swiss youth teams, anticipates a healthy challenge for playing time under Keshi’s new tenure. He made his senior Nigeria debut against Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire in January.
“It is going to be very tough fighting for the starting shirts in this team because of the quality of players.
“Personally speaking, I can tell you now that I am sure of a starting place in the team.
“My plan is to train very well and work very hard these coming days and to show the boss what I can do here with the rest of the team.
“I am really excited and I am over the moon to be here. I am working now with the rest of the team for us to deliver the goods in Kaduna.”
While a game against Chad is expected to be a walk-over for the Super Eagles, the midfielder expressed confidence in the ability of Keshi’s side to trounce their neighbours.
“With the quality of talented players that abound in this team, I am 100 percent sure that this team will qualify for the 2017 Afcon and I hope I can play my own part in beating Chad,” he concluded.