Messi’s enduring brilliance rewarded with another Ballon d’Or

Lionel Messi after winning the 2021 Ballon d'Or trophy during the 65th Ballon d'Or ceremony at Theatre du Chatelet, in Paris. (AP)
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Updated 30 November 2021

Messi’s enduring brilliance rewarded with another Ballon d’Or

  • The award a is record-extending seventh Ballon d’Or for the best player in the world

PARIS: Some might question whether Lionel Messi really deserved to win his latest Ballon d’Or prize ahead of other worthy candidates, but the Argentinian has been rewarded for continuing to be so good for so long.
The most turbulent year of Messi’s glittering career, in which he was forced to tearfully bid farewell to Barcelona, ends with him — at the age of 34 — claiming a record-extending seventh Ballon d’Or for the best player in the world.
In Germany they thought it had to be Robert Lewandowski’s year after he missed out 12 months ago when the 2020 edition was scrapped due to the pandemic.
Karim Benzema might have had plenty of support in Spain for his remarkable performances with Real Madrid, and Jorginho could stake a claim following a year in which he won the Champions League with Chelsea as well as Euro 2020 with Italy.
Yet it is the enduring brilliance of Messi — who won the last award in 2019 — which stays in the minds of the jurors when it comes to voting.
Having joined Paris Saint-Germain in August, he is the first male player to win the award while with a French club since Jean-Pierre Papin of Marseille in 1991, although it was his achievements with Barcelona and with Argentina that counted toward him effectively retaining his crown.
Messi tried unsuccessfully to force his departure from Barcelona in August 2020 but he showed no signs of rancour as he stayed put at the Camp Nou and ended last season with 38 goals in 48 games for his boyhood club.
These are the kind of remarkable figures that he has made so mundane over the course of his career — indeed he had actually scored more goals than that in 10 of his previous 11 seasons.
Messi was the top scorer in La Liga for the fifth consecutive year with 30 goals and won the Copa del Rey, scoring twice in the final as Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao 4-0.
This will always be remembered as the year his long association with the Catalan giants came to an end, after 672 goals in 778 appearances, a record goal tally for one club.
However, 2021 was also the year he finally won a major international title, captaining Argentina to victory in the Copa America with a 1-0 win against Brazil in the final at the Maracana.
He scored four goals in the tournament as Argentina won the South American championship for the first time since 1993.
“I think I won this trophy thanks to what we did at the Copa America so I dedicate this to my teammates,” he said after being handed his latest Ballon d’Or at the Chatelet Theatre in central Paris.
However the shame was that hardly any fans were in the stadium to witness Argentina’s Copa America success due to coronavirus restrictions, only adding to the sense that, despite all he has achieved, Messi still has unfinished business.
Not least at PSG, where he has so far played just 11 games since arriving in August, and scored just four goals.
Messi did provide three assists for the Parisians in a Ligue 1 match on Sunday but it remains to be seen how motivated the Argentinian is by the French league. He has other priorities.
“My dream is to win another Champions League,” he said at his unveiling in August, with the last of his four European Cups coming in 2015.
Then there is the really big one: the World Cup in Qatar will be underway this time next year and Messi will be 35 by then.
That will surely be his last chance to win the greatest trophy of all, and you imagine he would swap his seven Ballons d’Or to get his hands on it.


Instead of playing center court in Australia, Djokovic poses for selfies in Dubai airport

Updated 17 January 2022

Instead of playing center court in Australia, Djokovic poses for selfies in Dubai airport

  • The world number one flew out of Melbourne late on Sunday
  • Djokovic was escorted to Melbourne Airport by Australian Border Force officials

DUBAI: On the first day of the Australian Open, the world’s best male tennis player was taking selfies with fans at a Dubai airport arrivals gate.
Instead of warming up for his first scheduled match on center court at Melbourne Park in front of thousands, Novak Djokovic was 11,600 km (7,200 miles) away, agreeing to photos with a handful of fellow travelers.
“Hey mate, sorry about what’s happened,” one man said as he lowered his face mask for a snap with Djokovic, who kept his own mask on as he waited just off the airbridge for his entourage to exit the plane.
The world number one flew out of Melbourne late on Sunday after the Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa, capping days of drama over the country’s COVID-19 entry rules and his unvaccinated status.
The ruling dealt a final blow to Djokovic’s hopes of chasing a record 21st Grand Slam win at the Australian Open, which started on Monday.
Djokovic was escorted to Melbourne Airport by Australian Border Force officials, who formed a guard around the player in an airport lounge before taking him to the door of the plane.
While his coach Goran Ivanizevic and two others in his entourage were seated in business class, Djokovic was afforded the privacy of first class for the overnight 14-hour Emirates flight.
His arrival in Dubai early in the morning was far more low key. Djokovic stood alone, wearing a blue tracksuit top, jeans and trainers, carrying a tennis bag and holding his passport, as he waited for his three companions to also exit the plane.
The player agreed to a handful of fan photos before demurring and allowing airport officials to move people along.
A few hours later, instead of gearing up for his scheduled first round match against compatriot and world number 77 Miomir Kecmanovic, Djokovic was escorted by airline staff on a terminal buggy to the departure gate for a flight to Belgrade, where he checked in alone.
While he was in the air from Melbourne to Dubai, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison left the door open for him to compete at next year’s Australian Open despite an automatic three-year ban from entering the country.
Morrison noted there was scope for that three-year ban to be waived “in the right circumstances.”
Djokovic, however, did not appear to be in the mood to contemplate a return to Australia, ignoring a shouted question in Dubai about whether he planned to attempt a return Down Under.


‘This is motivation for us to keep going,’ Ancelotti says after Real Madrid’s Super Cup victory

Updated 17 January 2022

‘This is motivation for us to keep going,’ Ancelotti says after Real Madrid’s Super Cup victory

  • Madrid’s 12th Super Cup title moves the club only one behind Barcelona
  • Madrid went without a trophy for the first time in more than a decade last season under Zinedine Zidane

MADRID: Real Madrid won’t be going a second consecutive season without a title.
After failing to lift a trophy under Zinedine Zidane last season, Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid secured the Spanish Super Cup with a 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday in Saudi Arabia.
Luka Modric and Karim Benzema scored a goal in each half of the final as Madrid comfortably defeated the defending champions to reinforce its status as the top team in Spain this season.
Madrid has already beaten Barcelona twice — including in the Super Cup semifinals — and Atlético Madrid once, and is more than 15 points ahead of both rivals halfway through the Spanish league season. Ancelotti has also led Madrid to the knockout stage of the Champions League.
Madrid went without a trophy for the first time in more than a decade last season under Zidane.
“This is motivation for us to keep going,” Ancelotti said. “We have to keep competing like this.”
Madrid’s 12th Super Cup title moves the club only one behind Barcelona, the competition’s most successful team. Athletic was seeking its fourth Super Cup trophy.
It was Madrid’s second Super Cup title since the competition was moved to Saudi Arabia in 2020. It had won the first edition of the tournament in the Middle East country by beating Atlético in the final.
The Super Cup returned to Spain in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. 
Athletic was seeking its second consecutive title after defeating Barcelona in last year’s final. It beat Atlético in this year’s semifinal in the revamped “Final Four” format.
Modric opened the scoring with a curling shot into the top corner after being set up by forward Rodrygo just inside the area in the 38th minute. Benzema added to the lead by converting a 51st-minute penalty kick after a handball determined by video review.
Athletic had a chance to move closer in the final minutes but Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois saved Raúl García’s penalty kick with his left foot. Madrid defender Éder Militão was sent off for the handball that prompted the penalty.
“We could have gotten back into the game but Courtois ended our chances with that save,” Athletic defender Óscar de Marcos said. “It’s a shame but we have to be proud. It’s not easy to make it to these finals. We competed against great teams.”
Madrid’s triumph gave veteran Brazil defender Marcelo a record-tying 23rd title with the club since he arrived in 2006, joining Paco Gento. It moved him ahead of former central defender Sergio Ramos, who is now with Paris Saint-Germain. It is Marcelo’s fifth Spanish Super Cup title. He entered the match as a substitute in the 86th and lifted the trophy as team captain.
Madrid was without defender Dani Carvajal because of a positive coronavirus test.
There was a limited crowd at the 62,000-capacity King Fahd Stadium because of the pandemic.

Suspended match
Sergio Canales scored in the 73rd as Real Betis beat Sevilla 2-1 in a Copa del Rey match which resumed a day after a Sevilla player was hit in the head by a piece of PVC thrown from the stands at Betis’ Benito Villamarín Stadium. Betis advanced to the quarterfinals. The game was suspended at 1-1 on Saturday.

Valencia advances
Marcos André scored a minute into the match as Valencia beat Atlético Baleares 1-0 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey. Atlético was the last third-division club still in the competition.

Elche wins again
In the only Spanish league game on Sunday, Elche beat Villarreal 1-0 at home with a 78th-minute goal by Lucas Boyé to win its third straight match in all competitions.
 


Reigning champions Algeria beaten by Equatorial Guinea at Africa Cup of Nations

Updated 17 January 2022

Reigning champions Algeria beaten by Equatorial Guinea at Africa Cup of Nations

  • Esteban Obiang’s 70th-minute goal gave Equatorial Guinea the victory and brought Algeria’s 35-game unbeaten record crashing to an end
  • An Equatorial Guinea side ranked 114th in the world and 28th in Africa are now well placed to reach the knockout stages for the third time

DOUALA: Reigning champions Algeria are in danger of an early exit from the Africa Cup of Nations after a shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of outsiders Equatorial Guinea in Douala on Sunday.
Esteban Obiang’s 70th-minute goal gave Equatorial Guinea the victory and brought Algeria’s 35-game unbeaten record crashing to an end.
The 2019 Cup of Nations winners could only draw 0-0 with Sierra Leone in their opening game in Cameroon and are now left needing to beat Ivory Coast in their final Group E outing on Thursday if they are to advance to the last 16.
The Ivorians, who were last continental champions in 2015, were held 2-2 by Sierra Leone earlier and the group remains wide open but with Algeria bottom on just one point.
Meanwhile an Equatorial Guinea side ranked 114th in the world and 28th in Africa are now well placed to reach the knockout stages for the third time.
The two previous occasions came when they were hosting the tournament, in 2012 and in 2015, but this time many of the fans in the crowd of almost 12,000 in Douala were supporting the ‘National Thunder’.
Equatoguinean capital Malabo, on the island of Bioko, is a short hop over the Gulf of Guinea from Cameroon’s economic capital.
Few of their fans could have foreseen this result against an Algerian side captained by Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and almost entirely the same as that which won the 2019 AFCON final against Senegal.
Yet Algeria struggled to break down the opposition defense, while both Baghdad Bounedjah in the first half and Youcef Belaili late on had goals disallowed for offside.
The outstanding Iban Edu Salvador came close from long range for Equatorial Guinea in the first half and also created a chance that Luis Nlavo could not finish shortly after the break.
They again came close on a breakaway midway through the second half but it was from the corner that followed that their goal arrived — the delivery from the left was flicked on to the back post where the Spanish-born Obiang tucked it in before running to celebrate with the crowd.


Real Madrid crowned Spanish Super Cup champions in Saudi Arabia

Updated 17 January 2022

Real Madrid crowned Spanish Super Cup champions in Saudi Arabia

  • La Liga giants defeat title-holders Athletic Bilbao 2-0 to claim first silverware of the season

RIYADH: Real Madrid claimed their 12th Spanish Super Cup title on Sunday with a historic win in Riyadh.

The club defeated defending champions Athletic Bilbao 2-0 to claim their first silverware of the season.

Real Madrid were awarded a penalty in the 51st minute after striker Karim Benzema’s shot struck Bilbao defender Yeray Alvarez on the hand.

Benzema made no mistake, adding to the tally after Croatian international Luka Modric scored late in the first half.

David Alaba put on a dominant display as he returned to the side after being ruled out of the semifinal.

Bilbao were awarded a late penalty after Eder Militao was sent off for handling the ball. However, they were unable to convert and mount a late comeback, with Thibaut Courtois saving substitute Raul Garcia’s penalty kick.

Garcia almost managed to bring Bilbao back into the game, but his header went over the bar in the 62nd minute.

The game was a cagey affair in the early stages, with both sides having chances.

Benzema came closest to scoring, but his shot was palmed away by Unai Simon in the 17th minute.

A marauding run from Brazilian star Rodrygo set up Modric, who curled a shot past the Bilbao goalkeeper in the 37th minute, putting Real Madrid one step closer to lifting the trophy.

The only notable change for Real was Rodrygo replacing the injured Marco Asensio and Lucas Vasquez taking the place of Carvajal, who tested positive for COVID-19.


Liverpool beat Brentford to move up to second in the table

Updated 16 January 2022

Liverpool beat Brentford to move up to second in the table

  • Reds cope without the absence of key players Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane

LIVERPOOL: Liverpool kept their slim hopes of reeling in Manchester City at the top of the Premier League alive by seeing off Brentford 3-0 at Anfield to move up to second in the table on Sunday.

Fabinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Takumi Minamino scored the goals as the Reds coped without the absence of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Victory lifts Jurgen Klopp’s men to within 11 points of the runaway leaders, but they also have a game in hand on City.

Liverpool failed to take advantage of an extra man for over an hour as Thursday’s League semifinal, first leg against Arsenal ended 0-0, sparking fears of how they will cope for the rest of the month without two of their main sources of goals.

But a Brentford side that have not won a league game away from home since early October never threatened to cause an upset.

Klopp made just two changes from the Arsenal stalemate as Curtis Jones and Oxlade-Chamberlain were recalled to add extra creativity and dynamism to the midfield.

He was rewarded with a bright start as Diogo Jota headed over, Trent Alexander-Arnold flashed a shot just off target and Alvaro Fernandez made a brilliant save to deny Virgil van Dijk.

However, the crowd were growing restless until Brentford allowed Alexander-Arnold’s corner to bounce inside the area and Fabinho headed in at the back post. The Bees went toe-to-toe with Liverpool in a pulsating 3-3 draw when the sides last met in September.

But the visitors only created one big chance to get back in the game when Bryan Mbuemo turned Joel Matip and shot inches wide.

Jota hit the post and then should have scored when firing too close to Fernandez in a one-on-one.

There was no doubt over the outcome, though, once Oxlade-Chamberlain’s diving header turned Andy Robertson’s perfect cross into the bottom corner.

Brentford were architects of their own downfall for the third goal as Fernandez’s pass out from the back was seized upon by Roberto Firmino and he teed up Minamino to slot home from close range. The home fans could relax for the final 15 minutes and pointedly took the chance to chant the name of former manager Rafael Benitez, who was sacked by rivals Everton on Sunday.

The Toffees are in danger of falling into a relegation battle after one win in 13 league games.

Brentford, by contrast, still enjoy a 10-point cushion over the bottom three in their first season in the top-flight for 74 years but remain in 14th.